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Dental Care and Health By Lynn A. Caldwell, DVM

Dental science and, consequently, dental health for us as human beings, have come a very long way in the past 250 years. Most of us in this country are accustomed to regular, routine visits to our general family practitioner for an overall health evaluation, as well as a yearly visit to our dentist to stave off oral and dental health issues that might lead to tooth loss and major systemic health problems. Regular, routine health care visits are rewarded with increased longevity and vitality. Likewise, the incredible gains achieved in the field of veterinary dental science over the last 20 years rival those gains in the human profession, but in a fraction of the time. This means our companion animals now benefit from the same expertise in health and dental care that we humans have enjoyed for decades. Long gone are the days of the barber who provides a shave and a haircut along with the occasional molar extraction. Who would think of asking their hair stylist to evaluate a painful tooth in this day and age?

Many horse owners are aware of the importance of dental health and its direct influence on the overall health and well-being of their animals. These horse owners demand the same level of holistic dental care for their horse as they expect for themselves. They have chosen to entrust the care of their horses' mouths to a person most qualified to provide for the horse as a complete organism and not just a set of teeth. This person is the veterinarian who is trained to recognize problems as they relate to the entire animal. In short, these savvy horse owners have abandoned the barber with a set of pliers in favor of a trained, licensed medical professional. This individual is capable of diagnosing and rendering the appropriate treatment for what dental disorders might exist, and he or she can follow up with the appropriate care in a manner that treats the health and well-being of the whole horse.

The horse's mouth, complete with teeth, temporomandibular joint (TMJ), and muscles of mastication, comprise the stomatognathic system. The most variable components of this system are the teeth, which directly affect the functioning of the TMJ and the muscles of the head. This system must function at its optimum in order for the horse to maintain his health and achieve his highest level of athleticism.

Many times there will be no evidence of dental disease or discomfort to even the most watchful eye. Keep in mind that the horse is a prey animal, so the signs of dental disease or discomfort will generally be subtle or absent. Prey animals avoid telegraphing their distress to the predator to avoid becoming dinner. This feature of our equine companions is reason enough to explain why it is so important to have your veterinarian perform a thorough oral and dental examination on a yearly basis.

Young horses between the ages of 2 and 5 are particularly in need of dental care because these are the years in which they are acquiring their permanent teeth. Many things can go wrong at this stage, and preventive care is of utmost importance. Horses in their late teens and 20s also experience a higher rate of problems related to their mouths and require more frequent dental examination and treatment.

To learn more about proper equine dental care, visit the AAEP's Web site at The Horse magazine also has published many exceptional articles specifically addressing clinical signs and treatments for oral health problems. If you haven't already, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to get this most important system evaluated for your horse's health and well-being.

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