Looking into the Horse's Mouth
Dental care is a routine part of our own lives- throughout our whole lives. A horse's mouth is very different from ours, but their dental care is just as important. Dental care is a routine part of healthy horses’ lives also- throughout their whole lives. Ideally, dental exams and floats are preventative medicine for the horse rather than treatment. Routine exams and maintenance are how we stay on the preventative side, rather than transitioning to the treatment side. Equine dental exams should be performed at least annually; sometimes more frequently if recommended by your veterinarian based on individual conditions.
How Is The Horse's Mouth Different Than Ours?
We have brachydont teeth, horses have hypsodont teeth.
- Hypsodont teeth continuously erupt from the jaw over their lifetime.
- The equine tooth erupts 3-4 mm/year.
- By erupting each year, they are able to keep up with the wear caused by eating.
- Horse teeth continue to erupt until ~25-30 years of age
- The average lifespan of a horse is 25-30 years….Ironic, I think not!
***Fun Trivia Fact: Rabbits also have hypsodont teeth***
The horse uses its incisors get bites of forage into their mouth.
- The incisors apprehend a bite --> the tongue moves the bite back --> the cheek teeth chew thoroughly --> finally the bite is swallowed --> down the hatch! a bite of food chewed thoroughly is ideal for maximum absorption of nutrients once it hits the GI tract
The horse is (meant to be) a continuous grazer.
- In a 24 hour period, the horse will spend ~12 hours grazing.
- Horses like to graze in 30-180 minute intervals.
- Both stalled and pastured horses will do this if they have forage available.
The horse has an anisognathic jaw (strange word- simple meaning).
- The upper jaw (maxilla) sits wider than the lower jaw (mandible).
- The jaws moves side-to-side rather than up and down.
- This creates a rotational or elliptical chewing pattern.
Sounds Like a Great Plan, so Why Do We Have to Step In?
Together the anisognathic jaw + rotational chewing pattern create a machine for lifelong efficient foraging. Unfortunately this pattern causes the development of sharp enamel points on the teeth. Under normal grazing conditions, this motion causes enamel points to develop in a typical pattern:
- on the outside (cheek) edge of the upper jaw
- on the inside (tongue) edge of the lower jaw
These enamel points can get SHARP when left alone and can cause ulcers (ouch!) along the cheeks touching the upper jaw and the tongue touching the lower jaw.
***This is the pattern seen in normal horses, can you imagine the strange things than can happen when a horse strays from “normal” and develops abnormal chewing or eating patterns?***
There are some funky things that happen in mouths that go un-examined!
Since the domestication of the horse, diet and eating patterns have changed. Stall confinement and feeding schedules do change a horse’s natural eating behaviors. Luckily, with research and advancements in veterinary medicine, equine dental health can be managed and kept in great shape throughout their lives in all environments. But the horse is not so lucky if routine dental care is not provided.
What is Routine Dental Care?
To remedy the sharp enamel points, veterinarians perform a dental float. Dental floating involves smoothing the points by filing/rasping so that they are not able to create ulcers in the cheek or tongue. A dental float keeps the cheek teeth able to bite together evenly without the overgrowth of certain teeth due to abnormal eating patterns. The goal of routine dental care is to maintain balance between the continuous eruption of teeth & the wear put on teeth by eating patterns. In return, we are able to keep a horse chewing freely and comfortably throughout their whole life.
How Do I Know When My Horse Needs Dental Care?
Identifying and having your veterinarian address dental problems early is crucial! Allowing time to pass leads to a worse problem that may require more invasive treatment.
Signs exhibited by horses with dental problems include:
- resisting the bit
- not responding to training techniques
- weight loss or change in body condition
- dropping feed
- head tossing
- passing undigested feed in feces
- difficulty chewing
- decreased performance
- nasal discharge
- foul odors from the mouth or nose
- and many more
- here's the worst one: a horse may show you NO signs at all!
- Some horses adjust and compensate for problems really well
- Some horsescan be stoic in the face of pain or discomfort
Your horse’s mouth should be examined by your veterinarian at least annually, sometimes twice a year depending on age and history. Preventative dental care is our best chance at preserving our horses’ teeth and keeping them eating comfortably until their last days.
As a horse owner you likely spend time and money getting good nutrients into your horse. Routine dental care is our best guarantee to keep your horse chewing, digesting and absorbing those nutrients most efficiently!
This article is a brief overview of equine dental care- why it is necessary and how we provide it. There are many more components to equine dental anatomy and health. I am happy to answer any additional questions at our next appointment!
Caitlin Freeny DVM