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What You Need To Know About Basic Horse Dental Care

You may be surprised to learn that horses really need regular dental checkups. This is especially true as your horse grows older. As the years pass, the angle and shape of a horse’s teeth change. This can cause a lot of problems if left untreated. Luckily, regular dental care along with special attention to the signs and symptoms of impending dental problems can save you a lot of trouble and money.

In this article we discuss the symptoms you and your vet should look for when you examine your horse’s teeth. Read on to learn more about horse dental care.

How Can You Tell Your Horse’s Teeth Need Attention?

equine vet or an equine dentist

Your horse’s eating habits and condition will clue you in as to whether your horse is in need of some dental work. If your horse wastes grain, can’t chew hay or is losing weight inexplicably you should suspect dental problems.

Additionally, if your horse is experiencing dental problems, you may notice some of these signs:

1. When you perform a cursory exam or try to bit your horse, you may notice food pocketed between the teeth.

2. You may notice swelling, enlargements or bumps on the side of your horse’s face or on his jaw.

3. You may notice sharp points on the front molars (upper and lower) when bitting your horse.

4. Sharp and/or crooked teeth may lacerate your horse’s tongue and/or inner cheeks.

5. Your horse’s manure may contain hay that seems not to have been chewed.

6. You may notice a chronic, bad smelling nasal discharge (usually on one side).

7. Watch closely, you may see that your horse is only chewing on one side.

8. Your horse may begin to drool, or worse, bleed from the mouth.

9. He may shake his head while being ridden, driven or exercised.

10. The lower jaw may move in an odd and irregular manner.

11. Partially chewed food may fall from your horse’s mouth.

12. It may take a long time for your horse to chew his food.

13. Eating and drinking may cause loud, slurping sounds.

14. Your horse’s lips may become swollen and distorted.

15. Your horse may carry his head oddly all the time.

16. Your horse’s eating and drinking habits may change.

17. He may become head shy and try to avoid the bit.

18. You may notice that your horse has bad breath.

19. He may hold his head oddly while eating.

20. Cheeks may swell like a hamster’s cheeks.

21. Your horse may carry his tongue oddly.

22. Teeth may become loose or even fall out.

23. Meal time may take much longer.

24. Your horse may avoid eating hay.

25. He may lose his appetite.

26. He may resist the bit.

Any one or combination of these problems can mean dental trouble; however, it is important to understand that absence of these problems does not necessarily mean that all is well. Regular exams are necessary to ensure equine dental health.

Do You Check Your Horse’s Teeth Regularly?

check your horse's teeth regularly

Most horse owners don’t realize that horses’ teeth should be checked periodically. Your vet or equine dentist should provide a thorough exam at least once a year. In between times, you should have a cursory look just to check for wads of food, broken teeth or other obvious signs of trouble.

If your farrier also provides tooth floating services, it’s a good idea to have him or her check your horse’s teeth every couple of months when you have your horse’s hooves trimmed. Checking the teeth regularly keeps your horse accustomed to this attention. This makes full dental exams and dental work easier.

It is also wise to maintain a schedule of regular exams with your vet or a qualified equine dentist throughout your horse’s life. Depending on your horse’s age, this professional will check for a number of different symptoms during the exam.

Birth – 18 Months

A foal should be examined routinely at birth and again at one year of age. An equine dental exam for an immature horse up to eighteen months old would focus on:

  • Congenital defects that might affect chewing (e.g. head asymmetry)
  • Correct number and position of the teeth
  • Normal or abnormal tooth wear
  • Correct eruption of the teeth
  • Alignment of the incisors
  • Sharp enamel points

18 Months – 4 Years

basic horse dental careFrom the age of eighteen months to four years old, your horse should receive a dental exam twice a year. The exam would focus on:

  • Sharp enamel points appearing on wolf teeth, molars and premolars
  • Cysts which may erupt in the gums above permanent teeth
  • Evidence that the wolf teeth are interfering with the bit
  • Uneven growth or emergence of permanent incisors
  • Infected caps (deciduous tooth crown remnants)
  • Rounded premolars causing bit discomfort
  • Inflamed gums (i.e. gingivitis)
  • Periodontal disease
  • Loose teeth

4 – 10 Years

Horses between the ages of four and ten should receive an annual exam, which will focus on:

  • Sharp, irregular enamel points (aka: beaks, hooks and ramps) which will require extensive correction
  • Cheek teeth with sharp edges which may interfere with a bit
  • Sharp enamel points developing on the cheek teeth
  • Incisor balance, symmetry, contact and length
  • Balance and contact of the bite surface
  • Balance of the jaw

10 – 18 Years

From age ten to the age of eighteen years, your horse should have an annual dental exam focusing on:

  • Abnormal wear which may lead to problems such as periodontal disease and crown fracture
  • Unevenly worn central molars (i.e. “Wave mouth”)
  • Balanced tooth alignment
  • Canine tooth length

18+ Years

After the age of eighteen, your horse must have annual exams and may also need more frequent dental intervention to maintain good health because between 60 and 80 percent of senior horses have periodontal disease. Senior horse dental care focuses on:

  • Beaks, ramps and hooks on the teeth, which will need dental intervention
  • Tooth grinding resulting in loss of tooth surface
  • Signs of the need for a geriatric diet
  • Upper and lower jaw balance
  • The accumulation of tartar
  • Abnormal tooth wear
  • Loose teeth
  • Gingivitis

Dentistry In Horses

Do You Need An Equine Vet Or An Equine Dentist?

In some places only vets are allowed to perform dental procedures on horses. In others, you may be able to call on your farrier or on an equine dentist. The difference is that farriers who offer tooth floating services and equine dentists are not required to have any certification to perform these services. A vet, on the other hand, is a medical practitioner who actually has more training than a doctor for human beings.

If you decide you want to use an equine dentist, do a lot of background checking before allowing him or her to access your horse’s mouth. Look for a dentist who belongs to the International Association of Equine Dentistry. Check his or her background. Ask for and verify references.

If you decide to go with a veterinarian, look for one who has had specialized training in equine dentistry. Check his or her background and be sure to ask for and verify references.

Understand that you are well within your rights to ask to ride along on a visit to watch the professional of your choice at work. You don’t want to come to the realization that you are uncomfortable right in the middle of a dental procedure.

Good Teeth Are The Basis Of Good Health

good teeth is good health

Just as with people, a horse’s health may rest on the quality of dental care he receives throughout his life. Chewing is the beginning of the digestive process, and good digestion is the foundation of good overall health. Even though it may seem costly to provide your horse with regular, professional dental care, in the long run a horse with a healthy mouth will save you money. Good lifelong dental care can help your horse.

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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