Dental Disease in Horses

Key Takeaways

Dental disease is a common condition in horses, and includes gingivitis, periodontal disease, tooth decay, tooth fractures, and loose or missing teeth.

• Senior horses are particularly predisposed to developing dental disease

• Symptoms include dropping feed, bad breath, reduced appetite, and weight loss

• Diagnosis involves physical and oral examination

• Treatment depends on the underlying cause of the dental disease, but may include dental flotation, antibiotics, thorough cleaning of the mouth, and removal of affected teeth

• Dental disease is typically progressive with no definitive cure, but most horses can be successfully managed to have a good quality of life free of oral pain

A Closer Look: What is Dental Disease in Horses?

Many of the potential predisposing factors for dental disease can also result from dental disease, including loose or missing teeth, fractured teeth, and abnormal dental wear. Determining which condition occurred first is often not possible. For these reasons, dental disease is often considered progressive, as changes in oral health increases the risk of developing dental disease elsewhere in the mouth.

Risk Factors

For under saddle horses, dental disease can cause pain while the horse is bridled. Symptoms may include:

Poor performance

• Difficulty with bridling

• Head shaking under saddle

In some cases, dental disease can lead to tooth root abscesses. Symptoms include:

• Fever

Nasal discharge

• Swelling of the face or nose

Dental disease is common in horses, particularly in older and senior horses whose teeth are reaching the end of their lifespan. These horses are more likely to develop gaps or pockets between their teeth that collect feed and bacteria, increasing their risk of dental disease. Horses showing symptoms of dental disease require prompt veterinary examination, as significant weight loss can occur due to the pain associated with eating. 

Predisposing conditions to developing dental disease include:

• Abnormal dental wear, such as shear mouth, wave mouth, hooks and sharp points

• Abnormal development of the teeth, including malocclusion or abnormal tooth positioning

• Missing teeth or loose teeth due to age

• Altered immune system function due to pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction or other conditions

• Traumatic injury to the mouth

• Fractured teeth from traumatic injury or biting hard objects such as rocks

Possible Causes

Dental disease in horses is typically the result of abnormal dental wear, resulting in spaces or gaps between the teeth that can accumulate feed material. The feed stuck in these gaps rapidly ferments and grows bacteria, resulting in damage to the tooth, the ligaments holding the tooth in place, and the gums surrounding the tooth.

Main Symptoms

Symptoms of dental disease are often related to pain during chewing. Owners may notice:

• Dropping feed

• Unusual mouth movements while eating

Reduced appetite

• Weight loss

• Bad breath

Testing and Diagnosis

Diagnosis of dental disease primarily relies on a physical examination and oral examination. Horses require sedation for a thorough evaluation of the mouth. Other diagnostics may include:

• Bloodwork

• Diagnostic imaging, including skull X-rays

Steps to Recovery

Treatment typically involves managing the underlying condition, and removing any severely affected teeth. Treatments include:

• Dental flotation: a procedure to reshape the teeth

• Removal of packed in feed material 

• Antibacterial rinses of the mouth

• Antibiotic treatment

• Extraction of affected teeth

• Changing the diet to improve feed intake

• Increasing forage in the diet to improve tooth wearing

Dental disease is generally considered progressive, with no definitive cure. Through management and regular dental examination, most horses can have a good quality of life without oral pain. Due to the progressive nature of dental disease, affected horses often require more dental examinations than the average horse. Frequent visits are recommended to identify any new oral problems early, allowing for more effective treatment.


The risk of dental disease can be reduced by routine oral examination by a veterinarian to identify any abnormalities or predisposing risk factors early. Horses require an oral examination at least once per year, unless otherwise recommended by a veterinarian. 

Dental disease is not contagious.

Is Dental Disease Common in Horses?

Dental disease is common in horses, particularly in older or senior horses who are beginning to lose their teeth.

Typical Treatment

• Dental flotation

• Antibiotics

• Removal of affected teeth

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