The importance of regular dental care for your horse
Horses’ teeth are hypsodont, this means they are continually erupting throughout their life to compensate for the wear and attrition on their teeth. In addition to this the horses’ upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw. This results in sharp edges on the outside edges of the upper maxillary cheek teeth and on the inside edges of the lower mandibular cheek teeth. Post-mortem studies of horses have shown dental disease is present in over 50% of horses. Whereas the perceived incidence as reported by horse owners is much lower. Therefore the conclusion from this is that most dental disease goes undiagnosed. Therefore because of this all horses must have a dental examination at least once a year.
Signs that a horse may have a dental problem include:
- Head tilt
- Head shaking or head tossing
- Chewing the bit
- Resistant to the bit on one or both reins when ridden
- Weight loss
- Smelly breathe
- Unilateral mucopurulent nasal discharge
- Facial swelling
One frequently asked question by owners is,
“Why do we need to rasp our horses teeth when they are not rasped in the wild?
There are 3 main reasons for this: diet, age and work.
In the wild, horses are eating rough grazing close to the ground. Compare this to most domesticated horses who are on relatively lush pasture and also most domestic horses are fed hard feed. It has been shown that the sideways movement of the lower jaw is much less in horses eating concentrate compared to horses eating hay. The less the jaw moves sideways the more prone to forming edges that the teeth are.
The life expectancy of wild horses is only 10-15 years, whereas most domesticated horses have a life expectancy of 25-30 years.
Work and performance.
We use horses for many athletic pursuits and most of these involve bits and bridles. Backward pressure on the bit can cause soft tissue to get trapped between the bit and the front edge of the first cheek tooth. Also nosebands can push the soft tissue of the cheeks on to the sharp enamel points which are on the outside of the upper maxillary teeth.
The next important question is
“Who should rasp my horse’s teeth?”
In the UK anyone, even if that person has no training or experience, is legally allowed to rasp horse’s teeth. Therefore make sure you employ the services of a suitably qualified professional. In the UK this is either a veterinary surgeon with an interest in dentistry or a member of the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians.
Before a dental rasping the equine dental technician/vet will take a detailed history of your horse’s behaviour and any eating problems and perform a thorough extra-oral and intra-oral examination. The object is to identify all pathology and to come up with a suitable treatment plan. Once a detailed examination has taken place then the dental rasping can begin.
The equipment needed to perform a dental rasping can include:
- Gag, such as a Hausemann gag
- Very bright light source.
- Motorised dental rasp (not essential but preferable)
During the dental rasping the aim is to rasp the sharp edges off the buccal (outside) edges of the upper cheek teeth and the lingual (inner) edges of the lower cheek teeth. Also any overgrown or dominant crowns and any ramps or hooks should be reduced down by up to 4mm. If they are overgrown by more than 4mm then they would need to be reduced down in stages every 3-6 months.
The next step is to reduce any excessive transverse ridges. All molar teeth have two transverse ridges on them to aid with grinding food, these ridges should be no higher than two to three mm above the normal occlusal (biting) surface. If they are greater than three mm above the occlusal surface they are known as excessive transverse ridges. The problem with a dominant excessive transverse ridge, is that when the two jaws come together, the first point of contact between the two arcades of teeth is this dominant point. Therefore, instead of all the force of mastication being spread out equally over the whole dental arcade, all the force is initially transmitted through this one point (very similar to a stiletto heel). Excessive transverse ridges have, because of this increased pressure, been implicated in problems of the opposing arcade such as diastema and fractures. Therefore it is vitally important that excessive ridges are reduced down during a dental rasping however this must be performed carefully as the grinding surface of the tooth must not be rasped so much that it becomes smooth.
The final stage of a dental rasping is to rinse the mouth out and have a last look and palpate the teeth to make sure the mouth is finished to a satisfactory standard. As an owner of a horse, please get involved with the dental rasping, ask to feel and see the teeth before and after a rasping, so that you can notice the difference a good dental rasping makes.
Photograph 1: The white arrows point to the sharp enamel points and the red arrow points to the ulceration on the cheek caused by the points.
Photograph 2: A large tongue ulcer caused by a sharp hook on a tooth.
Photograph 3: A unilateral mucopurulent nasal discharge can be a sign of a dental problem
Photograph 4: Quidding or dropping food is an obvious sign that a horse has dental issues.
Photograph 5: a horse sedated, on a head stand and with a gag fitted ready for a dental rasping.
This article was provided by Andy Peffers, North Wales Dental Practice.
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