Pet Talk: Equine dental care vital to overall wellness

Pet Talk: Equine dental care vital to overall wellness

By Sarah Netherton/University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

Dental care is just as important for animals as it is for people. Since people typically visit the dentist twice a year, shouldn't a horse's teeth be examined by a veterinarian just as often?

According to Dr. Scott Austin, an equine veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, horses between 2 and 5 years of age should have two dental exams each year. This allows the veterinarian to address problems related to the eruption of permanent teeth.

If things are proceeding normally, teeth should be checked once a year after that. Horses after age 15 might have issues that need to be addressed more frequently, and therefore their teeth should be examined twice a year.

"Although you can get an impression that the upper teeth are sharp by observing a reaction when the horse's cheek is pressed against the edge of the upper teeth, sedation is recommended to perform a complete examination of the horse's teeth," Austin said. "You need to look into the back of the mouth and palpate all the teeth to fully evaluate the oral cavity."

All teeth should be examined to make sure they are not loose, as this is a common problem in older horses. A veterinarian will "float" the teeth, a process that involves filing any sharp points and adjusting teeth with abnormal wear.

This is important because horses' teeth grow continuously throughout their life, a condition called "hypsodont," and the teeth need to be kept even to ensure precise chewing.

"Horses that live indoors typically require more dentistry," Austin said, "because they spend less time chewing compared with horses that are on pasture and spend more time grazing. Less time chewing often means more sharp teeth, which can irritate and cause a horse pain if not routinely checked."

Common dental problems and diseases among horses include sharp enamel points, mal-eruptions (retained baby teeth), pulling wolf teeth, broken teeth, periodontal diseases and tooth loss. Very old horses can run out of teeth as their cheek teeth are ground down throughout their life.

Signs that a horse might need to have its teeth examined include avoiding grain, dropping feed while chewing, feed retention, foul smell in the oral cavity, feed refusal, nasal discharge and rotating the head while chewing to get food to the "good side" of the mouth. Performance-related issues that might indicate dental problems in horses with a bit in their mouth include refusal to work and head tossing.

Austin recommends feeding horses less concentrates and more roughage, which will allow the teeth to wear correctly. He also advises having horses' teeth examined by a veterinarian regularly to avoid problems.

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, beuoy@illinois.edu.

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