Why does my horse need a dental exam?
The dental check each year provides the opportunity for routine preventative maintenance to be performed. This allows for dental problems to be identified when they are still in a relatively early stage, decreasing the possibility of more severe dental conditions developing.
The typical adult horse has 36-44 teeth, depending if the canines and wolf teeth are present. The equine tooth is known as a hypsodont tooth (high crowned teeth), which are very different to our teeth, or a dog’s tooth. The most obvious difference is that the horse’s teeth have a reserve crown, this allows the teeth to erupt over a long period of time. Normally, they erupt and are worn down by grazing at about the same rate (2-4mm per year).
Horses evolved to be eating grass between 10 and 18 hours per day. They developed to eat dry, course grasses on the open plain. These days, our horses eat more lush grasses, more processed foods and grains. They often eat for much shorter periods during the day than their ancestors.
This change in diet affects the way the horse chews and thus how its teeth wear and erupt.
For example, with grains and pellets, the chewing motion becomes a much more up and down circle instead of a side to side one. This causes a more rapid development of sharp enamel points on the outer edge of the upper cheek teeth and the inside edge of the lower cheek teeth.
When they are not grazing, we may also see in some horses that the incisors may become long because they are not being used to bite off the grass.
How often should my horse have a dental exam?
All horses should have a dental check at least once a year, with performance horses requiring attention at least twice a year.
If your horse has a specific dental problem it may require treatment more frequently. A tailored plan will be made for your horse and your circumstances.
Young horses (2 – 5 yo) should have more frequent checks than more mature horses as many changes occur in the mouth during this time (24 deciduous teeth will shed in this period). Young horses should have a dental exam every 6 months.
All young horses should have an examination and sharp enamel points reduced before a bit is first placed in their mouth. This reduces the potential for oral trauma and pain, which can lead to behavioural problems that may last for years.
Senior horses may also require more frequent exams as they have an increased risk of developing periodontal disease.
Remember, it isn’t just ridden horses that need their teeth maintained, paddock horses also need to be able to chew their food efficiently and without pain.
What signs would my horse show if it had a dental problem?
Sometimes, horses may not show any obvious signs at all that they have a dental problem. We are often amazed by how much pain or discomfort some horses go through without showing signs to their owners.
Some signs which may be related to dental problems include:
- dropping feed or packing feed in the cheeks
- eating slowly
- avoiding contact with the bit
- foul odour from the mouth
- undigested grains or large particles in their faeces (making the birds fat!)
- head tossing
- not performing well under saddle
What should I expect when my horse has a dental exam?
- A history will be taken of how your horse has been behaving and if any of the above signs are present
- Your horse will be examined for sedation
- Your horse will be sedated to allow for a more complete oral exam and to reduce the stress on both the horse and owner. The sedation will often include an analgesic to provide pain relief if there are any ulcers or uncomfortable areas in the mouth.
- The horses head will then be supported with either a head stand or a dental halter that is suspended from above.
- The muscles around the head and the bones of the skull will be examined, followed by an assessment of jaw movement.
- The mouth will be rinsed of food
- A speculum will be placed to allow for safe opening of the mouth and examination and treatment of the teeth at the very back.
- A bright light source will be used with a mirror and probe to examine the teeth, gums, tongue and cheeks.
- All findings will be recorded on a dental chart. A copy of the chart will be given to you to include in your horses medical record.