Dental health is very important for your horse. It is often underestimated how it can have a negative effect on their well-being. Horses’ teeth are hard wearing and continue to erupt in the mouth for most of their life. In nature, the animals would be chewing rough fibre for over 18 hours a day which helps to wear their teeth evenly, but we have modified our horses’ life by keeping them in stables and replacing part of their daily food ration with concentrate, which in turn reduces their normal chewing activity. These factors can result in abnormal wearing of the teeth and sharp edges forming, causing discomfort and eating problems.
Prevention is better than cure! Equine dentistry has historically been undertaken in a reactive manner when there are advanced problems, rather than trying to identify early disease and prevent progression. It is, therefore essential that we guarantee our horses an adequate diet containing enough long fibre, monitor for any signs of dental discomfort and, as for humans, have regular dental checks to prevent disease and make sure they are comfortable when ridden.
How often should dental checks be done?
For youngsters, dental checks should start in the first year and be repeated every year, unless recommended differently due to abnormal dental conformation. Once your horse reaches 12-years of age it is sensible to have routine dental checks every 6 months. If dental disease is diagnosed, it may require more frequent examinations and treatment over a period of time
How to monitor your horse for dental problems?
As the horse’s mouth is inaccessible for owners, this can often mean that sores and ulcers cannot easily be observed. It is important to bear in mind that horses can eat normally and most will tolerate severe dental abnormalities and pain without showing many clinical symptoms. If you notice signs such as bad smelling breath, quidding (dropping partially chewed food), weight loss, swelling on face or mandible, nasal discharge, difficulty eating, food packing in the cheeks or discomfort when ridden, then contact your veterinary surgeon immediately.
The dental examination
The dental examination can be done by your veterinary surgeon or alternatively by a qualified equine dental technician (EDT), but make sure they are professionally regulated to provide adequate dental care for your horse. The owner of the horse will be asked questions about the general health of the animal, their eating habits and if they are manifesting any problems when chewing and riding. The vet or EDT will check for any swelling or asymmetry on the head before starting the examination of the incisors and canine and applying a gag to hold the mouth open. The use of a head torch, dental mirrors and picks will allow a full visualisation and manual examination of the mouth; including teeth, palate, tongue, cheeks, bars and the lips before carrying out a routine rasping to remove sharp edges. This can be done with hand rasps or motorised equipment.
It is also good practice for your vet or EDT to complete a dental chart of your horse’s mouth at each examination. This can then be referred back to in future dental examinations.
Sedation or no sedation?
Although some horses tolerate a dental examination well, the vet or the EDT might recommend sedation. This can be done by the vet administering an injection directly into the vein, or with an oral paste which can be administered by the owner 30-40 minutes beforehand. Only a vet can administer intravenous sedation, so if you chose to use an EDT for your horse’s dental treatment and they require sedation, then the vet will also need to attend. The sedation allows your horse to relax without associating the dental check with a negative experience, as well as ensuring that the procedure can be carried out safely for the animal and the people around them. The dental examination in this condition allows for a better visualisation of the horse’s mouth by reducing movement that could compromise the examination, and allow for the diagnosis of disease in the early stages when it is easier and less traumatic to treat.