If you ever wore braces, you probably don’t have fond memories of visits to the orthodontist. Biting on the blue paper or on pieces of wax to check your bite alignment; the plaster molds in the trays that made you want to gag. Then there were the scoldings that you weren’t flossing enough. Well really, does anyone floss enough?
As bad as all that was, at least once the braces came off all that was left was brushing and flossing at home, plus a little dental maintenance every year to keep gum disease away. Not true for our equine friends. Horses’ teeth are constantly growing and erupting from the upper and lower jaw into the mouth at a rate of about 1/8 of an inch per year, up until age 20. They have baby teeth like we do that will fall out as the adult teeth come in, but they’re softer than the permanent teeth.
Because of the way horses chew their food in a side-to-side motion they can create sharp points and wear their teeth unevenly. This wear can even lock their chewing surface up if it’s severe enough. You probably got the idea; horses need to see the dentist, too.
Four veterinarians showed our equine disease class the dental abnormalities they found in our school horses as we watched them prepare for the exam, sedate the horses, make the diagnosis and correct the problems. We also had a set of skulls to examine with one of the veterinarians to really see the challenges they can face when horses’ teeth have both natural and unnatural wear patterns. Have you ever accidentally bitten your cheek? Not only does it hurt, but if you’ve broken the skin it takes awhile to heal. But imagine if your teeth were sharp and constantly rubbing that cut. It would be hard for it to heal and you might not feel like eating. If that sharp point isn’t ground down by the dentist it can make the opposing tooth wear down in the opposite direction.
Of course, since it was a disease class, we looked at really bad cases of dental diseases in the horses during the lecture. Probably the strangest one with the fanciest name was equine odontoclastic tooth reabsorption and hypercementosis disease where the incisors are actually rotting inside. Surprisingly a horse can have all its incisors pulled and still be able to eat just fine. Some horses will require routine maintenance every six months grinding off sharp points. Other horses that have more complicated dental issues may need to be seen every three months for small corrections until the chewing surface of the molars are even in both the upper and lower jaws. Some important signs that indicate dental problems in horses that owners can spot include:
- Excessive salivation
- Open mouth chewing
- Dropping feed
- Head shaking or tossing
- Behavior issues with bit use
- Unilateral nasal discharge
- Mouth odor
- Facial or jaw swelling
A veterinarian with dental experience should check horses that start showing abnormal behavior. This must be done as a full dental exam with sedation and a mouth speculum because horses will not willingly show you all their teeth.
Also, I would like to thank all the veterinarians who came to teach us about equine dentistry. I just found out they all came as volunteers to give us this amazing undergraduate experience. Thank you Dr. Jim and Patty Latham, Dr. Garrison and Dr. Taylor.