Nothing but the Tooth

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If you're a horse owner or dedicated reader of horse care books, you KNOW that horses need to see dentists as much as we do. Take a look at these pictures presented here for some 'inside' info!

Why do horses need a dentist? Nature has equipped the horse with 36 teeth...12 incisors in the front of his mouth which are the ones we usually see, and 24 molars at the back on the upper and lower jaw...and these are the ones a lot of people tend to forget about.

The incisors are designed to bite or tear and the molars to chew and grind. Horse teeth, unlike human teeth, grow continuously at a rate of around 6mm (1/4") a year for all a horse's life and there is a corresponding rate of wear about the same amount on the teeth as the horse chews his food.

The top skull shows well maintained teeth...the bottom skull is horrific! The top skull shows well maintained teeth...the bottom skull is horrific!

Now you'd think these two factors would cancel each other out but unfortunately it doesn't quite happen that way. As you can notice in these pictures (and can also be seen in this YouTube video) the lower jaw is narrower than the upper jaw and over a period of time, the teeth wear down unevenly, resulting in sharp ridges which can cause the horse a lot of pain by way of ulceration and inflammation. The top teeth cut the inside of his cheek and the lower ones can lacerate his tongue so that eating is painful to such an extent that the horse will avoid this pain, even if this means going hungry.

It’s also a problem if your horse has lost a tooth, which means there’s nothing to wear against it, causing the tooth opposite to grow un-checked.

Signs your horse's teeth need attention include:

• Bad breath with thick, glue-like saliva

• A change in eating habits

• Dropping half-eaten food from his mouth

• Excessive drooling

• Undigested grain in his horse’s droppings

• Traces of blood in or coming from the mouth

• Swelling around the face or jaw

• Weight loss or a general decline in condition

• Holding his head at an angle, head-shaking, bolting and general misbehaviour

• Trying to evade the bit, or opening the mouth when being ridden

For most horses, a yearly check-up and filing will mean the horse is suffering no discomfort due to poor teeth. Younger horses in work benefit from inspection three or four times a year as their temporary or 'baby' incisors are in the process of being replaced by permanent ones. As in humans, the permanent tooth pushes the temporary one out but this can take up to two months during which time the horse can be very tender in the mouth. The dentist will help nature along by removing the temporary tooth and lessening the discomfort.

Older horses (aged 20 years or more) will benefit from a twice-yearly exam by a qualified equine dentist. If you have recently purchased a new horse, have his teeth checked by a horse dentist as soon as possible, especially if you don’t know much about his history. Even though he might appear to be in good condition, there just might be something minor lurking in his mouth that could save the horse a lot of potential discomfort.

DO NOT try checking a horse’s teeth yourself…leave this to the experts! You can visually inspect the front teeth, but the back ones are best checked by a vet or dentist.

So called 'wolf teeth' sometimes appear in front of the first two top molars and as they are not subject to any grinding action, can become long enough to strike and lacerate the lower jaw. Wolf teeth can be either extracted or cut off just above the gum line.

Horses have nerves in the structures supporting the teeth (the same as we do), so any exactions need to be carried out by a vet who is able to numb the area first.

Equine dental x-ray. Equine dental x-ray.

’Floating’ the teeth refers to the removal of sharp edges by a rasp or file, which corrects any misalignment. Over the past 10 years, power floats have come into use, but these must only be used by a highly experienced horse dentist to avoid damaging the nerves and tooth pulp which could result in a painful root abscess.

Teeth aren't all that dentists find in horse's mouths! One dentist was contacted by a worried owner whose horse had completely gone off his feed. An examination revealed the horse had apparently eaten a bag needle which was stuck firmly at the back of his tongue with the eye digging into the roof of the mouth. Once it was removed (it was so stuck a pair of pliers was needed) the horse began to wolf down feed! Other items that can get lodged in a horse's mouth include dog bones (one dentist estimates he extracts around three a year) and also hay bale wire. Another case involved a horse in very poor condition, who was found to have a tooth digging into his sensitive inner mouth, preventing him from eating properly and this probably happened after he was kicked in the face, causing the tooth to loosen.

For help finding a properly qualified dentist or for more information on dentistry, visit the Equine Veterinarian Association website.

Photos © Top Horse

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