Mind the gap

  • As a general rule, horses do not suffer from dental necrosis and caries (rotting teeth), and their teeth are not affected by sugar-coated feeds.

    During the course of routine examination, a practitioner will occasionally come across a tooth in which food has become trapped and which is decaying.

    Equine molars (cheek teeth) are mainly formed of three substances of differing hardness “folded” around each other.

    The upper cheek teeth also contain two blind pockets of enamel known as infundibulum. Many normal horses have small holes in the cement that fills their infundibula, and some develop larger, dark cavities (caries).

    If a horse is particularly prone to these and its diet is high in sticky, heavily molassed hard feed, this could potentially cause further decay. In such cases, the only real course of action has been to leave well alone until the decay is so advanced that the tooth needs to be removed.

    Recently, however, the use of fillings has been explored in the USA. The technique uses human dentistry equipment to etch out (drill clean) the hole, then seal and plug it layer by layer with dental composite of the type sometimes used to build up broken human teeth.

    Each layer is set using an ultraviolet light and the process, under intravenous sedation, usually takes about 30 minutes.
    The composite is enamel coloured and, because it is intended for human use, the tooth colour can be matched.

    BEVA-qualified Equine Dental Technician Matt Carter, who has been using this procedure in the UK for some time, explained his views of the benefits.

    “If a horse has severe dental caries, the affected tooth may eventually rot. Dental composite wears at the same rate as the tooth, so if we clean and fill a 5mm cavity, as the tooth wears down and is replaced with newly erupting reserve crown, when that 5mm has been worn away both cavity and filling will have gone. The tooth will be well again,” he said.

    “The equipment I use also has a high-pressure jet wash, which is used to remove tartar build-up, cleaning the teeth and gums, in much the same way as when we visit the dentist for a de-scale. For good measure, the horses also get a peppermint flavoured anti-bacterial mouthwash!”

  • This article first appeared in Horse & Hound (11 April 2002)

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