How to take care of your horse’s teeth

How to take care of your horse’s teeth  - A vet lifting a horse's upper lip to check their teeth

As horses age, their teeth continue growing to replace the tooth material worn away by chewing. In some cases, the combination of continued growth and wear and tear results in an unusual tooth shape. As horse owners, we need to be aware of the implications of this cycle, what dental problems are likely to occur as a result, and what we can do to prevent severe complications of dental disease. Read on if you’ve ever asked the questions:

  • What can my horse’s teeth tell me?
  • What are the basics of equine dental health?
  • What should be my biggest concerns about my horse’s teeth?
  • What are the signs of dental issues in my horse?
  • How does dental care change as my horse ages?

Because a horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout their entire life, they require regular dental care to prevent potential problems and resolve conditions before they start affecting overall health. Understanding the issues commonly found in a horse’s teeth and scheduling regular dental exams can help keep your horse healthy at every stage of their life.

What can my horse's teeth tell me?

There are many ways to use your horse's mouth as a clue for what is happening with them. By examining your horse’s teeth, you can identify any discomfort they may have and even determine their age. Dental care is a top priority in horse ownership, and understanding how your equine friend uses their teeth will help you better facilitate their needs.

The horse's mouth

Horses are grazing animals whose teeth have adapted for that exact function. The front teeth, which are called incisors, are used to shear off forage. The cheek teeth (molars and premolars) are wide, flat, graveled surfaces used to grind the feed to mash before swallowing.

Like humans, horses have two complete sets of teeth during their lifetime — baby teeth, also known as deciduous teeth, and adult teeth. By eight months of age, young horses are expected to have all of their deciduous teeth grown in (erupted) and functional. Adult teeth replace the baby teeth at around two and a half years of age. By the age of five most horses have all of their permanent teeth. Males have 40 adult teeth, and mares have 36 to 40. This difference between the sexes is due to the fact that mares sometimes do not have canine teeth (longer teeth on either side of the incisors).

The length and shape of the teeth can help determine the age of your horse. This is because as a horse grows older, the teeth wear in a fashion that correlates with age. The variation in each tooth, such as wear marks, the presence or absence of baby teeth, shape, and grooves, all help tell us how old our horse may be. This method of aging a horse based on dental evidence becomes less accurate as the horse ages due to differences in lifestyle, diet, and individual factors. Since horse teeth grow continuously for life,  horses require diligent, regular dental care to keep up with their oral health.

The basics of equine dental health

An oral examination is a crucial element of a horse's annual physical checkup by a vet. During a dental exam, routine preventive measures will keep your horse's mouth healthy and comfortable. Regular maintenance of a horse's teeth is called floating. Routine floating removes sharp enamel points, corrects malocclusion, and balances dental arcades and other issues.

Many horses spend the majority of their time in pasture, grazing continuously, picking up dirt and grit all day long. These soil components, as well as the silicate in the grass, wear teeth down over time. Stabled horses do not wear their teeth down evenly or as fast because they are usually fed once or twice a day and may have a diet higher in grain than forage. Soft feeds, such as grain, require less chewing, so the teeth of horses with high-grain diets have a tendency to grow too long or have abnormal wear.

In the horse’s mouth, lower cheek teeth are closer together than their upper cheek teeth, which results in uneven wear across the tooth’s chewing surface as the horse eats. In some cases, this will create sharp points along the edges of the cheek teeth. Those sharp points usually appear on the cheek side of the upper teeth and the tongue side of the lower teeth. Routine floating smooths out the points to prevent damage to the inside of the mouth. Misalignment of the teeth also causes them to wear improperly, creating hooks inside the mouth that can tear soft tissue, such as the cheeks and tongue. Short hooks may be treated in one dental float, while taller hooks may require multiple dental care sessions to prevent damage to the tooth.

What are the biggest concerns regarding my horse's teeth?

Since horse teeth have different forms that are growing and wearing at different speeds, problems can arise, hence the need for periodic dental examinations. Here are some of the most common concerns regarding your horse's chompers.

  • Sharp enamel points - Left untreated, sharp enamel points will cause lacerations in the cheek and tongue area.
  • Wolf Teeth These teeth are in front of the upper cheek teeth and occasionally the first lower cheek teeth. Even though they are quite small, if wolf teeth come in contact with the bit, they can cause discomfort. Removing these teeth while the horse is young is recommended to avoid root fusion to the jaw bone which prevents simple extraction.
  • Hooks - Usually caused by a lack of connection or wear between premolars or molars, hooks are overgrown teeth that need to be periodically flattened or will cause pain and damage soft tissue inside the mouth. Sedation is required during floating in order to open the horse's mouth wide enough to allow access to the very back of the mouth.
  • Abnormal or uneven bite planes Once skeletal development is complete, an over- or underbite in horses is impossible to correct. With this in mind, floating in order to reduce overgrowth helps manage dental occlusion and ensures the best long term outcome in cases of suboptimal oral growth and wear patterns.
  • Infected teeth and/or gums Infection can set in after the delayed eruption of teeth or impaction of cheek teeth. For example, tooth root abscesses can occur. Infected teeth can cause serious pain and discomfort. If ignored, tooth infection can cause the tooth to fall out or worse: the infection can spread to the surrounding tissue. In this scenario, your equine veterinarian may want to remove the infected tooth to prevent complications.
  • Retained deciduous teeth - Baby teeth that do not fall out may affect the normal eruption of adult teeth. These extra teeth may cause laceration, infection, and swelling of the gums, tongue or cheek.
  • Misalignment or poor apposition - This is usually associated with congenital defects or injury.

Each of these dental concerns can be treated by your veterinarian. After examining your horse’s teeth, your vet will recommend a course of treatment to correct any problems found or provide preventive treatment to avoid any issues. At a minimum, it is important to keep up with annual dental checkups to avoid major problems with your horse’s teeth.

What are the indicators of dental issues in my horse?

When a horse has dental problems, it may exhibit several behaviors or show other physical signs that point to an issue that needs to be addressed before it threatens overall health. Here are some signs to watch out for:

  • Unchewed hay in the feces
  • Decreased eating or drinking
  • Unusual movement of the lower jaw
  • Strange bumps on the jaw or the side of the face
  • Unusual tongue position
  • Head shy
  • Not being able to swallow food, dropping it on the ground
  • Weight loss
  • Strange slurping while chewing
  • Food pockets between teeth
  • Loose teeth or teeth falling out
  • Cuts in the cheek or tongue area
  • Swelling in the cheeks
  • Slow chewing and/or eating
  • Painful chewing
  • Unusual eating patterns, such as only eating on one side of the mouth or tilting head while eating
  • Resistance or irritation taking the bit
  • Excessive head shaking during riding
  • Unpleasant smell or heavy nasal discharge from nostrils
  • Increased salivation or drooling
  • Swelling of lips

Even though this list of dental issue indicators in equine animals may seem overwhelming, it is crucial to identify these signs in your horse. The better you know and understand your horse, the sooner you can tell when something is off. Early detection and treatment define the best course to ensure outcomes and keep your horse happy and in top performance.

How does dental care change as my horse gets older?

Equine dental needs shift with age. As a result, the priorities of dental care for horses evolve as they progress through different life stages, so routine dental examinations focus on different needs every couple of years. Here is how horse teeth and dental needs change throughout their life:

  • Foals - Perform a dental examination briefly after birth and frequently throughout the first year to catch any dental abnormalities.
  • Yearling teeth - These teeth form enamel points that need floating to prevent damage to cheek and tongue tissue.
  • Horses around two to three years - Horses typically begin training at this age, and need a thorough dental checkup as part of the training regimen. Floating is required to remove sharp points and check for retained caps at this stage. Caps that have not fallen out need to be removed so no problems arise during training due to sharp or misplaced teeth.
  • Horses aged two to five years Horses at this life stage need frequent dental exams compared to older horses, because the remaining deciduous baby teeth tend to be soft and wear into sharp enamel points more quickly. During this time, 24 teeth fall out, and 36-40 teeth replace them. Examinations two times per year are best for young horses from birth to five years old to avoid problems with tooth eruption.
  • Adult horses - These horses need a yearly dental examination to maintain the balance of tooth alignment and dental problems before they develop into more serious problems.
  • Senior horses Horses over the age of 17 have a higher risk of periodontal disease, and the disease must be caught early in order to effectively treat it. As a horse ages, keeping the bite plane in check during teenage years is essential to ensure a functioning grinding surface beyond 20 years of age. After 20 years, tooth surfaces that are excessively or unevenly worn down are almost impossible to correct.
  • Horses in their 20s and older - These horses should have a dental evaluation and nutritional counseling once a year to maintain their eating routine and keep functional dentition into their third and fourth decades.

"Keeping up with proper dental care throughout all stages of your horse's life has great benefits," says Dr. Madison Ricard, an equine veterinarian at Vetster. "Your horse will digest feed more efficiently, maintain weight and condition better, and may even live a longer life.” Taking care of your horse’s specific needs, whether it is retained baby teeth or tooth alignment in a senior horse, will help them progress and live peacefully as they age.

Why do I need to understand my horse’s teeth?

A horse's mouth can tell us a lot, whether regarding their age, physical health, or a clue into their behavioral issues. Dental hygiene is one of the many important aspects of healthcare in the equine world, so for any questions or concerns regarding your horse's mouth, book an online virtual care appointment today at Vetster to keep them at ease and eating comfortably all day long.

FAQ - How to take care of your horse’s teeth

Can teeth issues in horses be fatal?

Horses require regular dental maintenance throughout their life. Left untreated, dental problems can cause tooth root abscesses and other serious infections, which may be life-threatening if allowed to continue.

How often should I get my horse’s teeth floated?

A horse needs a dental examination and routine float at least once a year. However, considering your horse's age, breed, history, and performance, every six months may be necessary.

Should I worry about sedating my horses?

Sedatives are not something to worry about as long as a veterinarian is the one administering them.

Sedatives, local anesthetic, and analgesics can relax a horse so it is comfortable while the veterinarian  floats their teeth or performs other dental procedures. Only a veterinarian should administer sedative medications. Rarely, horses may have adverse reactions to sedative medications, which can typically be treated quickly by the veterinarian.

Can my performance horse’s teeth affect their behavior in the riding ring?

If your horse is dealing with dental problems, it can significantly affect their behavior in the riding ring. Having a bit in their mouth creates friction on the mouth and teeth which could cause poor performance. For example, if there is an infection or sharp enamel points, they may resist the bit or excessively shake their heads while riding.

The Vetster Editorial Team is comprised of seasoned writers and communicators dedicated to elevating stories about Vetster, pets and their owners.
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