Vets are becoming more aware of the significance of periodontal disease, which affects the base of the cheek teeth.
This can give rise to painful erosions of the gum tissue, leading to infected pockets where a stinking mash of food and saliva builds up.
The disease can cause eating and bitting problems, leading to sinusitis and tooth decay.
One of its most common causes is a diastema, or gap, between the big cheek teeth.
These teeth should be aligned closely and packed tightly along the jaw, but in some horses a gap develops that allows food to get impacted between the bases of the teeth.
This in turn causes gum disease.
Treatments vary from simply removing the packed-in food with a pick, to filling the gap with acrylic. A third, more radical option, is to widen the gap further by grinding the sides of the molar teeth with a motorised burr.
Enlargement of the space in this way allows normal mouth and tongue activity to keep the space food-free, but some vets and dental technicians have been worried about the long-term effects of the procedure.
Clinicians at Edinburgh and Glasgow vet schools have just reported a survey of diastema widening in more than 300 horses, some of which underwent more than one surgical procedure.
The results, published in the Equine Veterinary Journal (EVJ), reveal that in more than 70% of cases the clinical signs — which had included quidding, weight loss, bitting difficulties or bad breath — had completely resolved when the cases were followed up months later.
The incidence of complication was very low.
The conclusion is that diastema widening is safe if undertaken with care. The surgery may need to be repeated to achieve long-term benefits, but, overall, it appears to be the treatment of choice, provided there is no other dental disease in the mouth.