Horse Dental Care and Equine Dentistry

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 20:56
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Falcor the horse looking straight at the camera with his mouth open and teeth showing, with other horses behind him in the snow

Horses evolved to spend almost all day grazing — using their teeth to chew up hay, grass or other forage as the first step in the digestive process. In fact, horses have adapted to long hours of grazing in some unique ways. They have what’s called hypsodont teeth, which are teeth that continuously erupt at around 3-4 millimeters per year to compensate for the continuous grinding of forages. 

Our domestication and management of horses has had a massive impact on their chewing and digestion. For instance, it is often impossible to provide or even mimic an environment that allows horses to graze constantly. Because of the continuous eruption in their teeth and lack of adequate grazing, horses’ teeth can wear down in patterns that result in razor-sharp points, which can cause trauma to the mouth and ulcerate soft tissues. 

Dental problems can lead to pain and even behavioral challenges. In extreme cases, horses who can’t properly chew their food don’t get enough nutrients and they may drop weight or become underweight and even emaciated. 

Horse dental care should be taken seriously, but the good news is that preventative care is readily available through your veterinarian. 

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What does it mean to “float” a horse’s teeth?

Floating is part of basic horse care and maintenance. Horses are sedated, and a veterinarian or equine dentist uses a rasp, or file, to remove sharp points from the teeth. You might be wondering why the procedure is called floating. The name comes from the term for leveling or smoothing out concrete or mortar. While the procedure has had the name for a long time, dental care for horses involves much more than filing teeth.

Tula the horse yawning with mouth open and teeth showing

How often should my horse’s teeth be floated? 

The frequency of oral and dental exams in horses is based on many different factors. In general, equine veterinarians recommend an oral/dental exam twice a year until the horse reaches the age of five. From one to five years of age, the horse’s mouth is changing dramatically and, if problems arise, early intervention is vital in order to minimize the long-term impact of developmental dental problems. 

Between the ages of 5 to 15 years, veterinarians usually advise an annual oral/dental exam. Once horses reach their retirement age (usually late 20s), veterinarians generally advise going back to twice yearly oral/dental exams. During this time, a horse’s teeth begin to wear out or expire and are less effective at grinding forage, so minor adjustments to teeth and diet need to be performed more frequently. Each horse is an individual, of course, and a horse’s dental plan will be based on his or her particular needs. 

Do horses lose their teeth?

Horses erupt 24 deciduous (baby) teeth between the ages of one and five years. They can also lose molars as the teeth begin to expire, which happens when horses are in their late 20s and beyond.

What are the signs of a horse having dental problems?

Dropping bits of semi-chewed food (called “quidding”) is one of the first signs of a dental issue in a horse. You may also see changes in facial and jaw symmetry, weight loss, slow or painful chewing or eating, and notice a mouth odor. More subtle signs can include changes in behavior, reluctance to perform and pain associated with the bit. 

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