Dental problems are one of the leading causes for horses losing weight; this is particularly important as we head into winter. The mastication (chewing) process is very complex so any interference with this through dental abnormalities can lead to pain, slower and less efficient mastication of feed, and less feed ingested. Inadequate grinding of feed reduces digestion and can predispose the horse to colic, choke, and diarrhea.
Horses’ teeth continue to erupt (grow out) from the gum throughout life, and the crowns are continuously worn down by grinding up fibrous materials like grass and hay. The lower cheek teeth are approximately 30% narrower than the upper cheek teeth (this is known as anisognathism). The sideways chewing action of the horse combined with the anisognathism leads to the development of sharp enamel points on the outside of the upper cheek teeth and on the inside of the lower cheek teeth, which can irritate the cheeks and tongue and prevent the horse from chewing comfortably. These sharp enamel points develop more rapidly in grain-fed horses as less lateral excursion (sideways movement) is required to eat grains compared to grass. Sharp points on the first cheek teeth (which are actually the second premolars) can cause irritation and cuts to the mouth from the action of the bit. It is these sharp points that are filed down during routine dentistry. Horses’ teeth should be checked for points at least once a year and usually require only ‘routine maintenance’ filing if done regularly.
Other, more serious problems can develop if a horse has an imperfectly shaped mouth or does no receive routine maintenance. For example, if the lower jaw is slightly undershot (“parrot-mouth”) the upper and lower cheek teeth are not lined up accurately, and “hooks” and “ramps” can develop on the first upper cheek teeth and last lower cheek teeth because there is no opposing tooth to wear them down. These hooks can become very long and extremely sharp over time, and require specialist equipment to remove.
Other problems often encountered are; excessive transverse ridges (ridges across the teeth), retained caps (baby teeth), diastemas (gaps between teeth which trap feed and allow infection) and wolf teeth (small tooth in front of the first upper cheek tooth which can cause irritation from the bit).
The importance of regular dental examinations and correction of any abnormalities as they arise cannot be over emphasized in preventing the development of serious dental problems. Young horses should be checked for congenital problems (such as parrot mouth) as foals, then again before breaking in. Horses between the ages of 2-6 years should receive examinations every 6-12 months as this is a time when the mouth is rapidly changing. Adult horses in work should be checked at least every 12 months.
Ideally older horses should be checked every 6 months, as they lose teeth and are more prone to dental disease.
Our vets have received additional training in equine dentistry and are well equipped to provide routine dentistry as well as the ability to treat most dental problems encountered.