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by Shanna Nelson DVM
Proper oral health is of vital importance to the horse. Without good dental care, myriad problems can result: behavior issues stemming from pain when the bit is used, weight loss, choke, or impaction colic from inability to properly chew food, deep ulcers and infections in the mouth where sharp dental points cut into the cheeks or tongue, and more.
Horses have a different type of teeth from most other animals, including humans, dogs, and cats. Rather than having hard enamel on the outside, the teeth are encased in softer cementum. Additionally, the teeth continue to erupt throughout life (they do not “grow” past a certain point, as is commonly stated, but rather the adult horse develops a certain length of tooth, which is gradually used up until they run out of reserve in old age). As the teeth grind, they are essentially deformed by the tough feed material and the repetitive chewing motion. Over time, sharp points develop on the outside edges of the upper teeth and the inside edges of the lower teeth (a horse’s upper jaw is wider than its lower jaw). These sharp points are problematic, because they can injure the soft tissues of the mouth and, when severe enough, can actually prohibit the horse from chewing effectively.
In the wild, horses tend to eat stemmier plant material than what they encounter in domestic situations, and this helps to keep the sharp points in check. Additionally, feral horses simply do not live as long as our equine companions–they may not live long enough for dental issues to be a significant problem, or dental disease may in fact contribute to their demise (a horse that cannot chew, cannot live).
Floating the teeth is a procedure that is used to remove sharp points from the teeth and bring the mouth back into balance. This makes it easier for the horse to chew, removes the source of pain/injury, and makes it more comfortable for the horse to wear a bit or hackamore. In order to ensure a full view, including the back of the mouth, it is necessary to sedate the horse and use a mouth speculum (without these tools, it is impossible to perform a thorough examination). However, the sedatives used by veterinarians for this purpose are very safe and relatively short-acting.
During sedated oral examination, the veterinarian can also look for other signs of disease within the mouth, including gingivitis, fractured or missing teeth, infections, or masses. If identified, steps can be taken toward providing treatment, increasing your horse’s quality of life and longevity.
Most horses will benefit from a yearly float and thorough oral exam, regardless of the state of their teeth, to smooth sharp points and to catch minor problems early before they become bigger issues. In some instances (for example, very young or very old horses, or those with pre-existing dental disease), more frequent floating is recommended.
At Fox Creek Veterinary Hospital, we utilize Swiss Float power dentistry to safely, comfortably, and efficiently meet your horses’ dental needs. Power dentistry is now the standard of care among equine veterinarians, as it allows for a much faster and more thorough float than can be performed by hand tools. It is easier on both the horse and the handler, and when utilized appropriately, is very safe and effective. Please contact us at 636-458-6569 to schedule an appointment.