Dental disease in horses is very common and can be complex to treat. For equine dentistry, we use the same approach and equipment as your own dentist does with your teeth, with 100% care and professionalism.
Signs of equine dental problems are as varied as are the horses that present them. From the obvious, handfuls of feed dropping from the mouth as the horse eats and grain passing directly through the animal, to the subtler head tilting and weight loss, the solutions involve knowledge, proper equipment, and fortitude.
There are obstacles to thorough examination and treatment of dental issues in horses as they have tight cheeks and a small mouth opening relative to the size and number of teeth they possess. In order to provide good quality care for every horse a thorough examination alone needs various gags, bright lighting, special mirrors, dental probes and often sedation, not to mention knowledge and ability. A vast array of equipment and know-how are then required for the correct treatment to have your horse feeling good and performing at their best.
Costs & Benefits of Good Dental Care
For the average horse, the cost of a dental procedure (thorough examination, diagnosis, treatment and prevention) spread out over the year equates to about $3.00 per week. Looking at some of the other costs- feed, equipment, facilities, foot care, worming, vaccination, agistment, travel and club/competition fees- the benefits of regular dental care as a proportion of total expenses make this a very cost effective exercise. Good oral health is essential to overall well being and just like with people, horses with good teeth tend to live longer.
- No Pain- Many dental problems quickly become painful either while chewing or being ridden
- Good health- Gum disease occurs with poor dental care and causes pain and eventually tooth loss. Gum disease indirectly impacts on health through poor condition and a weaker immune system and potentially directly as a source of harmful bacteria which can spread to other organs in the body.
- More efficient chewing- Ability to better graze and process more grass each day so less processed food is needed to maintain condition.
- Less dropping of food- Many horses with dental issues will drop a lot of food onto the ground, which may be good for the local bird population, but not for your horse or your wallet.
- Improved behaviour and performance- Sources of oral discomfort such as wolf teeth or cheek ulcers from sharp points on teeth can cause all manner of problems when riding/training your horse. These might include poor head carriage, head tossing or rearing....because it hurts!
- Longer life- As with people, there is a strong correlation between good teeth and long life.
- Condition later in life- No one likes to see skinny old horses and a key to keeping them in good condition is good teeth. It is much better to prevent dental problems, advanced gum disease and tooth loss in older horses with regular preventative dentistry throughout their lives. Like us brushing our teeth. However, in some older horses, problems do occur and we can certainly address these to improve their quality of life.
- Other issues- Another benefit of having a vet attend to your horses’ teeth is that other issues such as foot problems, lumps and bumps, lameness and general health can be addressed at the same time.
How often should a horse receive a dental exam?
As a minimum, all horses should receive a yearly dental exam. Horses aged 2 to 5 years may require more frequent dental exams than middle-aged horses, as there is an extraordinary amount of dental changes which occur during this time in their life. Senior horses (20 years of age or older) have an increased risk of developing periodontal disease and face the additional challenges of advancing age. Twice-a-year examinations are often required to keep the teeth of senior horses functioning correctly, as they enter their third and fourth decades of life.
How will I know if my horse has a dental problem?
Horses with dental problems may show obvious signs such as pain or irritation, or they may show no noticeable signs at all. Remember that horses are a prey species and generally will not show a weakness until it is unavoidable. Equine veterinarians skilled in dentistry are constantly amazed at how much discomfort horses often endure without showing any outward signals to their owners. By the time many owners notice a problem, such as dropping feed from the mouth while eating, fighting the bit or avoiding contact of the bit when ridden, or a foul odour from the mouth or nostrils, the issues inside the mouth are likely to be severe. Severe problems are unfortunately often harder to fix, as with all things prevention is better than cure for both your horse and your hip pocket.
Oral pain can be exhibited in many ways by a horse from subtleties such as being a bit depressed, spilling a little feed when eating, eating more slowly, avoiding certain types of feed, and not performing as well under saddle to having major riding and behavioural issues, not being able to eat at all and losing weight dramatically
What is the difference between traditional floating and power floating?
Traditionally, horses have had their sharp enamel points and dental crown elongations reduced with hand-held rasps otherwise known as floats. Over the past 10 years revolutionary dental techniques have been developed to care for the equine mouth, including the use of power floats. Using a power float requires a high degree of skill and requires a qualified and experienced operator due to the potential to cause damage with the instrument. The main advantages that power floating provides to the horse is a more efficient procedure, has greater precision and causes less trauma to surrounding tissues.
Only your veterinarian who has under taken the necessary training has the skills and understanding to safely sedate your horse and subsequently perform dentistry with power instruments. It is important to visualise the power instruments during use, which is aided by adequate sedation, a good gag and bright light in the oral cavity.
The power instruments that are now avaiable to float teeth offer significant improvement over the basic tools that have been used since the turn of the century. There is a battery powered oscillating float and a cable driven drill that has burrs made for the end that can do in minutes what it used to take hours to do. Some of the older standard instruments like the molar cutters that were used to fracture teeth across the crown could be dangerous in that the tooth might not always break transversely where it was intended to break.
The dental gag that has been a standard tool for equine dental care has also seen an update, from a heavy cumbersome device to a much lighter and easier to use tool. Without the use of sedatives to help control the horse, using gags be dangerous for both people around and the horse. Sedating horses during dental procedures has made a great difference in the accuracy of diagnosing problems and the dental care required to correct them. This enables veterinarians to safely examine and treat problems in the equine mouth that might have been considerably more difficult to treat in the past. The equine mouth is a dark and dangerous place, with sedation it is safer and the veterinarian can do a much more thorough job. The medications used for sedation legally can only be administered by a veterinarian, which complicates the procedure for laymen. To do a thorough job, you really must sedate most horses.
How safe is sedation?
The safe use of sedatives in a horse is very complex and requires the full knowledge and training of a veterinarian. There are many factors to take into consideration with each individual case. Sedation is not without its risks to the horse, the handler and the veterinarian, however, a veterinarian is well educated to enable the risks to be minimised. In a healthy horse, the sedation drugs are well metabolised and the drugs themselves cause no long term effects. Most horses resume grazing shortly after the procedure
Why is it important for an equine veterinarian to perform dental work on my horse?
Only a veterinarian has the medical knowledge to understand and treat a dental condition. Many dental conditions have the potential to affect your horse’s overall health, performance and behaviour. Our veterinarians have undertaken extra training in equine dentistry and are able to offer the best dental care available today. Most equine dental procedures, including basic floating, irreversibly change the horse’s teeth and therefore are most appropriately performed by a veterinarian. The Australian Veterinary Association, along with Equine Veterinarians Australia and the Australian Veterinary Dental Society, believes equine dentistry is an important branch of veterinary medicine which should only be performed by a registered veterinarian. Our clinics work closely with Equine Dental Vets Australia to ensure our vets have up-to-date training and access to specialist Equine Dental Vets.