Aqueos - Caring for your Horse's Teeth
What is special about equine teeth?
Your horse’s teeth are a crucial starting point in your horse’s digestive system. Adult horses have between 36 and 44 teeth (depending on whether their canine teeth and wolf teeth are present). Their teeth erupt continuously throughout their life. This is an evolutionary response to the highly abrasive diet horses and ponies eat as herbivores, and the wear that this causes on the enamel of their teeth. As a horse or pony ages, and in turn the enamel is worn by what they are eating, the tooth gradually erupts from underneath the gumline to counteract this wear. The eruption is finite however, so in very old horses the tooth can “wear out”, meaning there is no tooth left underneath the gum to erupt.
Are there any dietary recommendations for good dental health?
Keeping your horse or pony’s diet as natural as possible is always recommended – both in terms of general dental health, but also their digestive health. Diets high in sugar (either roughage or bucket feed), or frequent sugary treats such as carrots, apples or licks can predispose horses’ and ponies’ teeth to decay (this is sometimes referred to as ‘peripheral caries’).
Why should I have my horse or pony’s teeth examined?
Horses have evolved to disguise dental pain, and it is therefore important to maintain regular dental check-ups for your horse or pony. In many cases dental disease is very advanced before obvious signs are seen. However, clear indications for a dental examination include:
- quidding (dropping partly chewed feed)
- facial swelling
- smelly nasal discharge
- an abnormal smell from your horse’s mouth
- turning the head to one side when eating
- weight loss
- recurrent colic
- difficulty swallowing
- recurrent choke
- large pieces of fibre (greater than 2cm long) found in the faeces
- “hamster cheek” appearance whilst/after eating
- trauma to the head
- bitting problems
- resistance ridden
However, it is also worth monitoring for subtle changes in appetite, or preference for certain types of roughage/feed, and speed of eating. You know your horse well, so if suspect there is something abnormal going on it is always worth getting your horse or pony’s teeth checked, even if they have been examined or rasped recently. Things can change very quickly within a horse’s mouth, so a recent dental examination or rasp does not necessarily rule out a problem with your horse’s teeth.
How often and by who should I have my horse’s teeth examined?
It is generally recommended to have your horse or pony’s teeth examined every 6-12 months, either by a veterinary surgeon, or a suitably qualified equine dental technician. Members of the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians, or the WorldWide Association of Equine Dentistry are a good place to start.
Sedation may be required for the examination depending on the horse’s temperament or circumstances, and how detailed an examination is required. Examinations can begin at any age once the horse or pony is halter broken, however rasping would generally be performed for the first time from 2-4 years of age, depending on the situation. A thorough examination and rasp is always recommended prior to breaking, to ensure that the horse does not associate wearing a bit/bridle with any dental discomfort.
What dental treatment is my horse likely to need?
The majority of horses will require their teeth to be rasped to remove sharp enamel points and edges on their teeth which develop over time. This will usually involve using motorised dental equipment to remove these sharp points, edges, and any overgrowths. The dental examination also gives the vet or dental technician the opportunity to identify any other problems which may benefit from further treatment. This could include extractions, restorations, and treatment of gaps (‘diastema’) between horses’ teeth.
Will my horse or pony cope without regular dental check-ups?
Sometimes owners will ask “well, how to they cope in the wild?” – one explanation is the difference in diet between wild and domesticated horses. We generally provide our horses and ponies with a ready supply of good quality grass or other good quality roughage – this is likely easier to eat, grind and digest than the diet wild horses and ponies are accustomed to. The fact that they do not wear any tack i.e. headcollars or bridles, which can put additional pressure on the outside of the cheeks on sharp enamel points of the cheek teeth, also lessens the significance of any dental problems.
Ultimately, if a wild horse or pony has severe dental disease and is not able to eat properly, they may be singled out by a predator and may not survive. Domesticated equines are also living much longer than wild horses and ponies, and therefore may need additional dental care in their later years.
What can you do to prepare for your horse or pony’s dental examination?
It is worth getting your horse or pony used to having his or her mouth examined – regular practice can make dental examinations much less stressful for both horse and owner. Just parting the lips to look at the front teeth, and looking from the side at the corner of their mouth to see their canine teeth (if they have them) will get your horse or pony used to early stages of a dental examination.
In some cases your veterinary surgeon or dental technician may recommend that you clean between your horse’s front teeth (incisors) or clean plaque off their canine teeth (if present) – so it really is worth investing time in getting your horse or pony used to having the front of their mouth looked at. Looking at or feeling the cheek teeth, or trying to find wolf teeth, is not recommended without a dental gag in place. A horse’s jaw is incredibly powerful and can do a lot of damage, so do not take any chances!
A word about wolf teeth…
These are a normal part of your horse or pony’s anatomy if they are present. Some horses do not have any wolf teeth, some will have one or two, and very occasionally horses will have three or even four wolf teeth. Historically, wolf teeth were always removed when they were identified – the theory being to prevent any problems with bit contact. However, some wolf teeth do not cause any problems, and horses or ponies can live with them for many years without them ever causing as issue.
Large, displaced, or blind wolf teeth are more likely to cause an issue with the bit, and subsequently could influence the horse or pony’s contact when ridden, but removal should be discussed on an individual basis with either the veterinary surgeon or dental technician who is taking care of your horse’s teeth. It is worth noting that any wolf tooth removal must be either performed or supervised by a veterinary surgeon.
Advances in equine dentistry
Equine dentistry is becoming more and more advanced, and the scope for advanced dentistry procedures in horses and ponies is ever increasing. This includes for example, restoration of cheek teeth and incisors which have infundibular caries (similar to human fillings) and endodontic (root canal) therapy for fractured teeth and some infected cheek teeth. This means that there is more chance your horse or pony’s tooth or teeth may be saved, rather than needing to be removed, should a dental problem arise.
Take home message
Regular routine dental examinations with a qualified professional should allow any problems with your horse or pony’s teeth to be identified quickly and dealt with before they cause any serious problems. However, problems can still crop up between appointments, so do call a vet if you notice any signs of dental problems.
Article written by Dr Jessica Putnam BVMedSci(Hons) BVM BVS(Hons) MRCVS – 27th September 2021