Equine Dental Care

For most of their lives, horses' teeth continue to grow. This is why the age of a horse can be gauged by its teeth. Most horses outlive their teeth, but still require dental care throughout their lives. While horses in the wild typically eat enough fibrous and abrasive food to wear their teeth down properly, domesticated horses usually do not. Domesticated horses, therefore, have trouble with teeth that are unevenly worn down or that come to extremely sharp points. Not only can these teeth result in painful lesions in the horse's mouth, they can cause the horse's jaw to lock as it chews. The solution to these equine dental problems is a process called "floating," during which the pointy teeth are ground down and smoothed.

Signs of Equine Dental Problems

It is important to pay attention to a horse's behavior and to be aware of signs of a dental problems. The following are possible symptoms of trouble with the horse's teeth:

  • Foul breath
  • Drooling or foaming
  • Facial swelling
  • Head tossing
  • Peculiar chewing
  • Chewing on the bit
  • Tongue lolling
  • Carrying the head at an angle
  • Quidding (spitting out small bits of hay or grass)

Other signs of dental problems may be more subtle, seemingly unconnected to the teeth or gums. Dental problems should be suspected if there is no other obvious cause for irritability, nasal discharge, fussing about bit placement, colic, weight loss, production of coarse manure, or reluctance to have the face or muzzle handled.

If any of these behaviors persist, a veterinarian should be consulted because the horse may be uncomfortable or in danger of serious injury.

Dental Care for Young Horses

Horses lose their deciduous (milk) teeth at an early age and get their adult teeth between the ages of 2-1/2 and 5. On occasion, a deciduous tooth does not come out normally which can lead to pain and possible infection. When a baby tooth becomes lodged over a mature tooth, it's called a cap. Veterinary intervention is necessary to remove the cap.

Like humans, teething can make some young horses very uncomfortable. They may temporarily develop sore spots or lumps in their mouths as their adult teeth are erupting.

Dental Care for Mature Horses

Pastured horses, like wild horses, wear their teeth down more appropriately with grass, which is filled with silica, and bits of soil. Horses that do not graze sufficiently and eat a softer diet of grain and alfafa, do not wear their teeth down as well. To prevent the sharp edges of their teeth from injuring their mouths, they require regular dental check-ups and at least one floating annually.

For the most part, horse teeth do not require cleaning, but canine, or "fighting" teeth, that usually only develop in male horses, accumulate tartar. Tartar requires removal by the veterinarian since it can lead to gingivitis.

Some horses are troubled because they have extra teeth, known as wolf teeth, that interfere with bit placement. Having the veterinarian or equine dentist remove the wolf teeth should make such animals much more comfortable. Sometimes it is also necessary for such horses to be fitted with bit seats.

Dental Care for Older Horses

Horses over the age of 25 usually begin to lose their teeth. This may make it difficult for them to chew properly. Older horses that show signs of dental problems, as noted above, particularly if they are drooling, eating slowly, spraying their feed or quidding, are usually missing teeth. They should be checked by the veterinarian and given senior feed that is easier to chew. The more pasture time they have, the better.

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