A closer look: Grinding Teeth (Bruxism) in Horses
Bruxism, also known as teeth grinding, is an uncommon sign of physical or psychological discomfort in horses. Horses that grind their teeth require prompt veterinary attention to determine the underlying cause. Horses showing severe symptoms such as colic require emergency medical attention.
Bruxism is related to pain, whether physical or psychological.
Sources of psychological pain include
- Stress related to performance
- Stress related to changes to routine
- Stress related to travel
- Poor social standing within the herd hierarchy
- Poor relations with a handler or rider
Bruxism is described as having a sudden or progressive onset, and being occasional, repetitive, continuous, or compulsive.
Sudden onset bruxism is typically related to sudden pain, including colic or traumatic injury.
Progressive onset bruxism is typically related to progressive pain including dental pain or worsening arthritis.
Occasional and repetitive bruxism are typically related to pain that comes and goes, such as equipment-related pain, stress anxiety, or to the presence of people or other horses with whom it has difficult relationships.
Continuous bruxism is typically related to ongoing pain, such as with gastric ulcers, or associated with neurological disorders.
Compulsive bruxism occurs when the horse is soothed by the act of grinding its teeth, so that even when the painful stimulus is removed, the grinding continues as an obsessive habit.
Testing and diagnosis
Diagnostic tools to identify the underlying cause of bruxism include:
- Physical examination
- Oral examination
- Lameness examination
- Diagnostic imaging, such as x-rays or ultrasound
Horses with sudden onset bruxism are often experiencing colic. In these cases, diagnostic tools include:
- Nasogastric intubation
- Rectal examination
- Abdominal ultrasound
Note: nasogastric intubation should only be performed by a veterinarian. There is no safe way to intubate a horse at home.
In cases where no physical ailment is detected, investigation into the social and behavioral life of the horse is required. This is best carried out by a behavioral expert.
Treatment depends on the underlying cause, and may include:
- Pain medication
- Antibiotics, in the case of infections
- Anti-inflammatories, in the case of inflammatory conditions
- Changes to diet or routine
- Changes to handling and training
- Changes to the social environment
Bruxism is fairly distinctive, however a horse that finds a bit uncomfortable often moves its jaw in a similar manner. Playing with the bit or champing the bit is common in young horses who have minimal experience with bitting.
Sudden onset bruxism is often accompanied by other signs of colic.
Bruxism is sometimes a symptom of a neurological disorder. In this case, associated symptoms include a lack of coordination, holding the head in an odd asymmetrical position, or head pressing.