with Dr. Toots A. Banner, DVM, specializing in Equine Dentistry
Q. How can I tell if my horse has a dental problem?
A. The most common symptoms are dropping feed "quidding", slow chewing, reluctance to chew, head tossing or tilting, large pieces of roughage in the manure and weight loss. Bad breath and facial or jaw swelling may be indications of infection. Performance problems may include a reluctance to take the bit, head tossing, tilting or a reluctance to collect. Even with significant dental disease, some horses show no or minimal clinical signs so a thorough evaluation with a good light and a speculum are necessary.
Q. When should my horse begin dental care?
A. When your foal has it's first veterinary examination the teeth should be included to identify any dental irregularities such as an overbite or underbite. The wolf teeth typically erupt at 6-9 months of age so they may be removed during elective young horse procedures such as castration if time allows. All horses should have a thorough oral exam and their teeth floated with equilbration prior to having a bit placed in their mouth which is often at 18-24 months of age. Horses begin shedding their "baby" or decidious teeth around 30 months (2 years) of age and will loose 24 teeth in the following 2 years. This is why regular dental care is very important during the first 5 years of age to correct malocclusions before they become severe. Horses should be fully evaluated every 6 - 12 months.
Q. How do horses get malocclusions?
A. As in most animals, a horse's teeth develop and erupt through the gum and begin the chewing or masticating function when the 2 opposing teeth (upper and lower) come into contact. While most teeth come into contact close to the midline, some will erupt in advance of the opposing tooth and will meet above or below the midline. A tooth that is 1/2 inch longer will result in an opposing tooth that is 1/2 inch shorter when compare to the midline. With a horse having 12 incisors (front teeth) for shearing and 24 premolars & molars (back teeth) for grinding, this adds up to 36 teeth total. When divided by 2, (half upper teeth & half lower teeth) this leaves 18 pairs of teeth that chew or masticate on each other. Malocclusions occurs when teeth are out of alignment and may cause the horse to chew irregularly and inefficiently. A few of the terms used for malocclusions are hooks, waves, ramps and steps which are single words describing the shapes of the teeth involved in the malocclusion.
Q. How are malocclusions corrected?
A. Since we do not do braces on horses as is done on children, it is important to reshape and realign horses teeth as soon as malocclusions are noted. While hand floats are used to take sharp edges off the edges of teeth they are often inadequate in correcting malocclusions. The tooth that is too long must be reduced to allow the short tooth a space to erupt into. (Horse's teeth erupt throughout their lifetime). Depending on the severity of the malocclusion, this may be accomplished in a single procedure or may take several attempts to allow the short tooth to "grow out". There are often several teeth involved in the malocclusions so care and consideration must be used on the amount of reduction to be taken. Each tooth has at least one pulp chamber (with some containing as many as 7), which contain sensitive structures such as nerves and blood vessels. This is where the terms balancing or equilibrating come into proper usage. Floating refers to taking off sharp points while balancing or equilibrating refer to reducing malocclusions thus eliminating restrictions in the horses ability to move the laterally (side to side) and rostrocaudally (front to back). Strictly floating a horse's teeth does not balance the mouth.
Q. I am worried about having to put my horse under sedation. Can you alleviate my concerns?
A. Modern sedatives and tranquilizers are much safer than they have been in the past. Sedation is an essential portion of proper evaluation and performance of dental procedures for our horses. A horse that is properly sedated allows for a safer work environment for everyone involved in the procedure and a reduction in the horses's anxiety.
Q. When is my horse too old for dental care?
A. One of the commom misconceptions is that geriatric horses need less dental care or are "too old" to benefit from dental procedures. The opposite is true as older horses develop sharp points & malocclusions just as younger horses do. They often have significant plaque formation, gingivitis and periodontal disease. Further evaluation may reveal loose, decayed or split teeth which may require extraction.
Q. What should normal gums and teeth in a horse look like?
A. The gums should be pink with the gum margins the same color as the rest of the gum tissue. Any areas that are reddened, swollen, recessed or ulcerated probably have dental disease. A horse's teeth are covered by cementum except for the occlusal or chewing surface which is composed of cementum, dentin and ribbons of enamal.The horse tooth is not white due to the cementum absorbing pigments from roughage, grain, grass and the soil. Dental plaque, which contains microorganisms, is a biofilm that builds up on the surface of teeth. The plaque is often a pale yellow color and is usually seen on the incisors and canine teeth. However, plaque may form on any of the teeth. When plaque builds up it may form into calculus or tartar which is a result of mineralization of the plaque. This buildup often leads to gingivitis and peridontal disease which may lead to poor oral health including premature tooth loss.
Dr. Toots A. Banner, DVM, specializing in Equine Dentistry
Dr. Toots A. Banner DVM, American Association Equine Veterinarians Equine Dentistry Committee Member & American Veterinary Dental Society member. He is a graduate of University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. He is an instructor/lecturer at the University of Florida Veterinary Medical Center and the owner of Riverside Equine Dental Services in Micanopy, Florida.
Dr. Banner has lectured at the American Association of Equine Veterinarians Equine Dentistry Focus Meeting, the North American Veterinary Conference and the Florida Association of Equine Veterinarians Convention.