March & October
EQUINE DENTAL MONTHS
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The Importance of Maintaining the Health of Your Horse's Mouth
Routine dental care is essential to your horse's health. Periodic examinations
and regular maintenance, such as floating, are especially necessary today
for a number of reasons:
- We have modified the horse's diet and eating patterns through domestication
- We demand more from our performance horses, beginning at a younger
age, than ever before.
- We often select breeding animals without regard to dental considerations.
Proper dental care has its rewards. Your horse will be more comfortable,
will utilize feed more efficiently, may perform better, and may even live
The Horse's Mouth
Horses evolved as grazing animal, and their teeth are perfectly adapted
for that purpose. The forward teeth, know as incisors, function to shear
off forage. The cheek teeth, including the molars and premolars with their
wide, flat, graveled surfaces, easily grind the feed to a mash before
it is swallowed.
Like humans, horses get two sets of teeth in their lifetime. The baby
teeth, also called deciduous teeth, are temporary. The first deciduous
incisors may erupt before the foal is born. The last baby teeth come in
when the horse is about 8 months of age. These teeth begin to be replaced
by adult teeth around age 2 1/2. By age 5, most horses have their full
complement of permanent teeth. An adult male horse has 40 permanent teeth.
A mare may have between 36-40, because mares are less likely to have canine
The following chart shows the approximate ages at which different teeth
erupt. By referring to it, you may detect potential abnormalities of your
own horse associated with teething. For more information, refer to the
Official Guide for Determining the Age of the Horse, published by the
American Association of Equine Practitioners.
Deciduous (Baby Teeth)
1st incisors (centrals)
Birth or 1st week
2nd incisors (intermediates)
3rd incisors (corners)
1st, 2nd & 3rd premolars (cheek teeth
Birth or first 2 weeks for all premolars
Permanent (Adult teeth)
1st incisors (centrals)
2 1/2 years
2nd incisors (intermediates)
3 1/2 years
3rd incisors (corners)
4 1/2 years
|Wolf teeth (1st premolar)
|2nd premolars (1st cheek teeth)
||2 1/2 years
|3rd premolars (2nd cheek teeth)
|4th premolars (3rd cheek teeth)
|1st molars (4th cheek teeth)
|2nd molars (5th cheek teeth)
|3rd molars (6th cheek teeth)
||3 1/2 - 4 years
COMMON DENTAL PROBLEMS
Horses may suffer from many dental problems. The most common include:
- Sharp enamel points forming on cheek teeth, causing lacerations of
cheeks and tongue.
- Retained caps (deciduous teeth that are not shed).
- Discomfort caused by bit contact with the wolf teeth.
- Hooks forming on the upper and lower cheek teeth.
- Long and/or sharp canine (bridle) teeth.
- Lost and/or broken teeth.
- Abnormal or uneven bite planes.
- Excessively worn teeth.
- Abnormally long teeth.
- Infected teeth and/or gums.
- Misalignment/poor appositions (can be due to congenital defects or
- Periodontal (gum) disease.
RECOGNIZING DENTAL PROBLEMS
Horse with dental problems may show obvious signs, such as pain or irritation,
or they may show no noticeable signs at all. That is due to the fact that
some horses simply adapt to their discomfort. For this reason, periodic
dental examinations are essential. Indicators of dental problems include:
- Loss of feed from mouth while eating, difficulty with chewing, or
- Loss of body condition.
- Large or undigested feed particles (long stems or whole grain) in
- Head tilting or tossing, bit chewing, tongue lolling, fighting the
bit, or resisting bridling.
- Poor performance, such as lugging on the bridle, failing to turn or
stop, even bucking.
- Foul odor from mouth or nostrils, or traces of blood from the mouth.
- Nasal discharge or swelling of the face, jaw, or mouth tissues.
Oral exams should be an essential part of an annual physical examination
by a veterinarian. Every dental exam provides the opportunity to perform
routine preventative dental maintenance. The end result is a healthier,
more comfortable horse.
FLOATING & PREVENTATIVE MAINTENANCE
The process of rasping or filing a horse's teeth is know as floating
or dressing. This is the most common dental procedure veterinarians perform
on horses. Floating removes sharp enamel points and can create a more
even bite plane. It also helps keep incisors and cheek teeth at a desirable
When turned out on pasture, horses browse almost continuously, picking
up dirt and grit in the process. This, plus the silicate in grass, wears
down the teeth. Stabled horses, however, may not give their teeth the
same workout. Feedings are more apt to be scheduled, not continuous, and
to include processed grains and hays. Softer feeds require less chewing.
This may allow the horse's teeth to become excessively long or to wear
unevenly. Adult horse's teeth erupt throughout their life and are worn
off by chewing.
Unfortunately, cheek teeth tend to develop[ sharp enamel points even
under normal grazing conditions. Because the horse's lower jaw is narrower
that its upper jaw and the horse grinds its feed with a sideways motion,
sharp points tend to form along the edges. Points form on the cheek side
of the upper teeth and the tongue side of the lower teeth. These points
should be rasped to prevent them from cutting the cheeks and tongue.
Floating is especially important in horses who have lost a tooth, or
whose teeth are in poor apposition and do not fit together well. Normal,
contact with the opposing tooth keeps biting surfaces equal. When cheek
teeth are out of alignment, hooks can form. If left unchecked, these hooks
can become long enough to penetrate the hard or soft palate. Small hooks
can be removed by floating. Longer hooks are usually removed with molar
cutters or a dental chisel.
Wolf teeth are very small teeth located in front of the second premolar
and do not have long roots that set them firmly in the jaw bone. They
rarely appear in the lower jaw. A horse may have one, two or no wolf teeth.
While not all wolf teeth are troublesome, veterinarians routinely remove
them to prevent pain or interference from a bit.
The age of a horse affects the degree of attention and frequency of dental
care required. Consider these points:
Horses going into training for the first time,
especially 2- and 3-year-olds, need a comprehensive dental check-up.
Teeth should be floated to remove any sharp points and checked for
retained caps. Caps should be removed if they have not been shed.
This should be done before training begins to prevent training problems
related to sharp teeth.
Even yearlings have been found to have enamel points
sharp enough to damage cheek and tongue tissue. Floating may improve
feed efficiency and make them more comfortable.
Horses aged 2-5 years may require more frequent
dental exams than older horses. Deciduous teeth tend to be softer
that permanent teeth and may develop sharp enamel points more quickly.
Also, there is an extraordinary amount of dental maturation during
this period. Twenty-four teeth will be shed and replaced during this
time, with the potential for 12 to 16 teeth to be erupting simultaneously.
Horses in this age group should be examined twice yearly, and any
necessary procedures should be performed.
Even the best dental program may not be able to
solve or alleviate all of a young horse's teething discomfort.
Mature horses should get a thorough dental examination
at least once a year, whether or not there are signs of tooth problems.
It is important to maintain an even bite plane
during a horse's middle teens in order to ensure a level grinding
surface into its 20s. If you wait until the horse is in its 20s, the
surfaces may be worn excessively and/or unevenly, and since the teeth
are no longer erupting at this age, alignment may be impossible.
DEVELOPING GREATER AWARENESS
If a horse starts behaving abnormally, dental problems
should be considered as a potential cause.
Teeth should be floated and maintained as indicated
by an annual examination performed by an equine practitioner.
Wolf teeth are routinely extracted from performance
horses to prevent interference with the bit and its associated pain.
Sedative, local anesthetics and analgesics can
relax the horse and keep it more comfortable during floating and other
dental procedures. Such drugs should e administrated only by a veterinarian.
Loose teeth are generally unhealthy teeth. If your
equine practitioner finds a loose tooth, he or she will likely extract
it. This reduced the chance of infection or other problems.
Canine teeth, generally present in mature gelding
and stallions and sometimes mares, are usually clipped and filed smooth
to prevent interference with the bit. This also reduce the possibility
of injury to both horse and human.
Depending on the condition of your horse's teeth,
more than one visit from your equine practitioner may be required
to get the mouth in prime working order.
It is important to catch dental problems early.
Waiting too long may increase the difficulty of remedying certain
conditions or may even make remedy impossible. - Older horses should
have their teeth cleaned at least twice yearly.
MORE SERIOUS DENTAL AILMENTS
Serious dental conditions can develop, such as infections of the teeth
and gums, extremely long hooks on the molars, lost or fractured teeth,
and others. These conditions may require surgical treatment and/or extraction
by a veterinarian. Your equine practitioner can recommend the best treatment.