Routine Dental Care and Why it Matters!

Many of you may have called our office recently to make an appointment for vaccines or other services, and received a friendly reminder from Brandi or Kevin that “your horse is due for a dental exam”. A WHAT? Many of you may be wondering when we say such things. We receive many questions about routine dental care in horses every day, which is good, because dental care is crucial to your horses overall health. Hopefully, this article will answer some of the more commonly asked questions about equine dental health.

What does it mean to “float” a horse’s teeth?

“Floating” is a general term that means filing down sharp points in your horse’s mouth, along with reducing the height of teeth that are overgrown. It also can mean evening out the chewing surface of the teeth so that they are better able to chew food.

Why does my horse need his/her teeth floated, but my dog or cat do not?

Horses are different from many animals, including people in that their teeth erupt constantly throughout life. As a tooth erupts it is ground down by the tooth that opposes it. The constant grinding motion of chewing wears down the teeth so that they don’t get too tall. Many times a tooth, or a part of a tooth, won’t directly oppose another tooth and is allowed to continue to grow without any restriction. This creates spikes, peaks and waves that can begin to inhibit the grinding motion of the horse’s mouth when he/she eats, thus creating even more problems.

Who needs a routine dental exam?

Every horse over the age of five should have a routine dental exam once every twelve months. This exam includes mild sedation and an exam with a dental speculum. By doing this, we can assess the back of the horses mouth, where most points and peaks develop. Older horses will sometimes need a dental exam done every six months instead of once a year to stay on top of issues that may arise in our geriatric or “problem” mouths. It can be beneficial to have a dental exam done on a young horse before it enters training. We can then alert the trainer of any “baby teeth” that are about to come loose (in a horse less than five years old), and address any possible bitting issues, before training begins. In addition, some horses have what we call “wolf teeth”. These are small teeth that are in front of the first molars. These teeth can interfere with the bit and cause pain during riding. We will commonly pull wolf teeth before a horse begins training

I have owned horses for a long time, just recently I have been hearing more about the importance in routine dental care for horses. Why are we now encouraging dental care for horses now when we have not in the past?

Because of excellent vaccination programs, custom feeding programs, effective de-worming, and observant and caring owners, horses are living longer and longer. It has become evident that one of the major limiting factors in a horse’s life span is his or her oral health. Teeth that are overgrown or worn down too quickly, or severe ulceration of the mouth prevents an older horse from getting the nutrients it really needs to maintain body condition. By addressing your horse’s teeth now, not only are you helping him/her live a happy, healthy life today, but you are taking important steps toward increasing your horses life span.

What are the signs of dental problems in horses?

Signs of dental problems can range from very subtle to very obvious, they include:

    Resistance to the rider’s aids
    Flipping of the head when ridden
    Difficulty bending one direction (or both)
    General “bad attitude”
    Weight loss
    Dropping of food when chewing
    Excessive drooling

My horse isn’t dropping food or losing weight, does he/she really need a dental exam?

Yes! Weight loss and dropping food from the mouth are usually the last signs seen and indicate severe dental problems. We will commonly examine horses that are not loosing weight or showing other signs of dental problems and find severe points on the teeth causing ulcers in the tongue, and gums. Don’t wait until your horse is losing weight to have his/her teeth checked, make it part of your yearly preventative medicine program for your horse!

Wild horses survived for years without routine dental care, why do our horses need it?

Wild horses are constantly grazing on roughage. This constant chewing creates an even grinding surface and grinds down points and spikes as they develop. Most of our horses have a pelleted or concentrate as part of their diet, or eat in meals two to three times a day. This management predisposes horses to developing dental problems as their teeth are not subject to the constant grinding motion that a horse that is grazing’s teeth do. We also expect our domestic horses to live into their late twenties or even thirties, routine dental care is part of what has enabled our domestic equines to live so much longer. In addition, horse breeders do not commonly select for good mouths and easy keepers as is done through natural selection in the wild. Therefore, we have a higher percentage of domestic horses with conformational mouth issues than we do wild horses with these problems.

What can I expect when my horse has a dental “float”?

The tools used for dental care in horses have advanced greatly in past years. Gone are the days of hand files and horses having to stand for long periods of time while the veterinarian sweats and grumbles in the hot summer sun. Today we have the benefit of power tools that get the job done quickly and with much less trauma to the horse (and the veterinarian). We do sedate all horses that we perform dentals on, we believe this creates less tension in the horse and enables us to do the job quickly and safely. Be prepared, the “power float” does make some noise, but the horses don’t seem to mind!