Everything You Need to Know About Horse Dental Health

Horse dental health is extremely important since it improves the life span, performance, and digestion of horses. Like humans, you need to stay on top of your horse’s oral hygiene. There are many aspects that have an impact on your horse’s teeth such as their diet, lifestyle, genetics, and more. 

Carrollton Equine has got your back and we’re going to share with you everything you need to know about horse dental health.

How do I keep my horse's teeth healthy?

The most important factor in maintaining a horse's dental health is routine oral exams and dental floats. Complications from dental abnormalities can often be greatly reduced (or eliminated) if caught early. Every horse should have a full dental examination annually. This will require sedation and an oral speculum as the the molars in the very back of the mouth can not be fully visualized without a speculum. The sedation used is very safe and short acting and helps your horse be more calm and comfortable for the procedure. (NOTE: Only licensed veterinarians are legally allowed to sedate horses! While the drugs are very safe, there are certain medical conditions that can put your horse at risk for adverse reactions. A brief exam is performed before sedating your horse so we can confirm they are healthy. Any non-veterinarian that uses sedation is putting your horse at risk!)


What is a dental "float" and why do horses need them? 

You may know that horses need "dentals" or a horse "had their teeth done", but what does this actually mean? This is a very different procedure than a dental cleaning that happens with people or cats and dogs. Horses are designed for a lifetime of eating rough, fibrous food. This food needs to be ground to tiny pieces for proper digestion and nutrient absorption. To hold up to years of continuous wear, horses have "hypsodont" teeth, meaning they have very long roots and are constantly erupting their teeth to replace surface which has been ground down.  They also have a narrower mandible (lower jaw) than maxilla (upper jaw) and chew their food in a circular motion. These three factors (offset chewing surfaces, circular chewing motion, constantly erupting teeth) mean that the edges of the teeth will be worn into points, which can often be quite sharp and cause uncomfortable ulcerations on the adjoining cheek and tongue. The term "float" is an old masonic term meaning to level or smooth a surface. When we "float" a horse's teeth we are smoothing the sharp edges that form from normal daily chewing action. This will prevent ulcerations from forming and will allow any existing ulcers to heal. 


Why do we need to perform floats when wild horses seem to live fine without them?

There are multiple reasons:

1. Diet and lifestyle differences

Wild horses live on a varied diet of rough shrubs and grasses and spend nearly all of their time roaming and grazing. Compared to our horses that are fed soft hay intermittently throughout the day, they are using their teeth in a much more consistent and forceful manner. 

2. Genetics

Wild horses that have poor dentition do not thrive and are eliminated from the gene pool at a young age. This results in a population of horses predisposed to have less dental abnormalities. 

3. Different expectations

Wild horses do not have bits in their mouth and are not asked to perform. Their mouths may be full of ulcerations which are not painful enough to keep them from eating, but would make them very uncomfortable if they were asked to use their mouth in a different way. 

Remember, if a wild horse can not eat, they die! We are fortunate enough to help our own horses in ways that are not available to them. Letting things be "natural" is not always better!


What are signs of dental issues in horses?

The most common signs of oral discomfort include difficulty chewing, weight loss, drooling, foul smelling breath, dropping grain and spitting out wads of half-chewed hay ("quidding"). There can also be performance issues such as reluctance to take the bit, not yielding to rein pressure and tossing their head while being ridden. However, it is important to realize that horses are prey species that are hard wired to not show outward signs of pain, especially oral pain.  This means that by the time you notice any problems there is likely already a significant issue occurring. Even a horse that "seems fine" and is not exhibiting any of the listed signs could still have a painful mouth and be hiding it. This is why regular oral exams are so important for all horses. 


How often should horses have dental care?

A good rule of thumb is to plan on having an oral exam and dental float performed each year. This procedure can be done any time, but clients often schedule dentals at the same time as spring vaccines for the convenience of one visit. Some horses will require dental work more frequently such as every 3 to 6 months. Young horses under 6 years old I prefer to have exams +/- floats performed every 6 months. This is because at this age their mouth is changing quickly as they lose baby teeth and their adult teeth are coming in. Young horses also have much softer teeth and can often have the sharpest enamel point of any age group. I also recommend exams every 6 months for geriatric horses that are starting to lose teeth as their mouths are also experiencing many changes. For older horses is it always wise to prevent problems such as weight loss as it is often much easier than trying to put weight back on them. 


What are common dental issues in horses?

The most common dental abnormality is sharp enamel points (as mentioned previously) which can cause ulcerations and laceration. However, there are many more things that can go wrong in a horse's mouth! Due to the constantly erupting teeth they are prone to develop malocclusions such as wave mouth, steps, ramps, hooks and points when the teeth are not erupting or being worn evenly. These malocclusions can prevent the other teeth from meeting normally and reduce grinding ability as well as causing discomfort. Horses can also get painful conditions such as cracked, broken or infected teeth. Most dental pain will present in the same way and it is impossible to properly identify the true cause of the discomfort without a thorough oral exam. 


What can I expect at my horse's dental appointment?

Dental exams can take place anywhere with shelter and solid footing. A clean stall with no shavings or a grooming stall is an ideal location. We will start by gathering a thorough history including your horse's previous dental issues or any identified concerns. We will then perform an exam to ensure the horse can be sedated safely. If everything appears normal we will sedate your horse with an injectable, short acting sedation. This will make them calm and relaxed for about an hour. It is incredibly rare for a horse to lay down or fall down with proper sedation. Once sedated, an oral speculum is placed to open the mouth for examination. This device does not force the horse's mouth open beyond their comfort level and is very well tolerated. The horse's mouth will be flushed to remove remaining food matter and is then examined using a bright light. A plan is then made to determine the best care for any issues identified. If a dental float is required, motorized water-cooled hand tools are used to equilibrate the mouth accordingly. If any further pathology is identified it will be addressed. Once all procedures are complete the speculum is removed and the horse is allowed to wake up, this generally takes 45 minutes to one hour before they are back to full alertness. All feed will be withheld until the sedation has worn off, but they can go back to their normal routine and feed shortly afterwards. No riding is allowed for the rest of the day but they can be ridden the next day as normal. The entire procedure from start to finish will take on average anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes. 


The Next Steps

Now that we’ve covered everything you need to know about how to best take care of your horse’s dental health, you can take the necessary next steps toward how to better improve their hygiene. 

As you can see, there are easy practices you can follow to keep up with your horse’s needs. From regular check ups, their diet, and the signs that signal dental issues, you can use this knowledge to assess the best path you can take in order to ensure your horse’s teeth are healthy.

Solving your horse’s dental issues will not only extend their lifespan, but make them more comfortable as a whole during their day-to-day life. Treat your horse’s teeth and oral hygiene like your own, and don’t ignore it for a long period of time. 

If you need to make a dental check-up appointment or have any concerns about your horse’s health, don’t hesitate to contact Carrollton Equine today.

About The Author

Dr. Alyson Waring-Scott

MVB, cVMA, VSMT  |  Equine Veterinarian

I am an Equine Veterinarian at Carrollton Equine and enjoy all aspects of equine medicine. I am especially passionate about dentistry and ophthalmology, and have received advanced training in both of these areas. I am also certified in medical acupuncture and VSMT (chiropractic). 

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