Why is it important for an equine veterinarian to perform dental work on my horse?

Dr. Jay JoyceWhy is it important for an equine veterinarian to perform dental work on my horse?

A veterinarian with dental experience is the most qualified to understand and treat a dental condition that may affect the horse’s overall health.  Most equine dental procedures, including basic floating, irreversibly change the horse’s teeth and therefore are most appropriately performed by a VETERINARIAN.  A licensed veterinarian with a special interest in dentistry is likely the most qualified and most certified option available.  Remember, it is veterinarians who primarily train everyone else– including lay dentists and members of various non-veterinary dental organizations carrying assorted “certifications”.

Why choose a veterinarian over a “dentist”?

The word “Dentist” is a very deceiving word in the horse world.  It has NO official definition or punishment for falsely using the word.  It becomes very confusing for a horse owner, determined to provide the best care for their horses, to make a decision as to who is to  treat their horse.   Laymen “dentists” have NO MEDICAL TRAINING. Unsuspecting horse owners often erroneously choose “dentists” over veterinarians because of this deceptive marketing of the word.

With increased interest in equine dentistry and the expansion of medical science in this area, horses can now receive more thorough dental examinations and better quality comprehensive dental care.  Many equine dental procedures involve the use of  sophisticated hand and motorized instruments which allow appropriate work to be carried out in the mouth.  Veterinarians have the educational background in areas of  anatomy, physiology and pharmacology to treat the “whole horse”.  The administration and use of sedatives and tranquilizers are often necessary to examine and perform thorough floating and other dental procedures.  These agents under law should only be administered by a licensed veterinarian.  The potential exists for damage to dental structures if instruments are not used properly or procedures are not performed to standard. 

We don’t allow human dental technicians to singularly address and treat these issues, so why should your horse get a person with less training, make bigger decisions regarding the diagnosing and treating of your horse’s dental issues without the guidance of a doctor??

“Hooks” can form on the first pre-molar on each side of the upper jaw. The image below shows what a frontal hook would look like in the horse’s mouth and why it would cause discomfort when the horse is carrying a bit in his mouth.

Horses experiencing performance issues may be corrected with bit seats.
Many veterinarian dentists may gently round-off the front surface of the first upper and lower cheek teeth. This creates a “bit seat”. This involves rounding the edges of those teeth so there are no sharp surfaces to catch or pinch soft tissue between the bit and the tooth.  It provides a more comfortable fit for the bit. Below is an illustration of a bit seat (although probably too rounded above).

“Slant” (or Diagonal Bite):   When looking at the incisors from the front, the incisors should look almost level. In some cases, when they are not level, and are clearly at a “slant”.  Below is an illustration.  A horse with a slant mouth has some upper incisors which are too long meeting lower incisors which are too short on one side of the mouth. The other side has the problem reversed. This is corrected using a power float while the horse is sedated by a licensed veterinarian. It is not uncommon for there to be quite severe cheek teeth problems with slanted incisors. Both problems need to be addressed at the same time by a veterinary dentist.

When horses flex at the poll, their lower jaw actually moves back in relation to their upper jaw. Horses with step teeth, ramp or a wave mouth do not have the forward/backward mobility making it harder for them to comfortably “go round”. This puts more strain on structures such as the temporal mandible joint (TMJ) and muscles in their neck and back. A horse floated on proper schedule can use their body more correctly. Horses experiencing TMJ problems may show signs of “feeling heavy in your hands”, pulling the reins out of your hands, head twisting, head tossing, head shaking, stiffness in its neck or back (causing rider to think that the saddle doesn’t fit) or sometimes even balking, rearing, bucking or other violent behaviors. If your horse has unaddressed TMJ problems, permanent damage will result and these behaviors may never change.

Adult horses have 12 front teeth called incisors, 12 pre-molars and 12 molars. Stallions and geldings may have an extra 4 teeth that are referred to as canine teeth or fighting teeth. These teeth should not be confused with the wolf teethWolf teeth may be extracted when your horse is young. Especially before he/she is fitted for a bridle and ready for a bit. These teeth can break off in your horse’s gum and cause more problems should you elect not to have them extracted early in life. Additionally, because they have shallow roots and may wiggle, they can cause irritation when riding with a bit.

It is recommended that your horse’s teeth be examined on a routine schedule. One is suggested below.

Birth Foals should be examined to check for abnormalities
6 months Exam recheck for abnormalities and make sure deciduous (baby) teeth are erupting properly and there are not any retained caps
1 Year Yearlings may experience their first brief floating to remove sharp points
2-5 Years The recommendation is horses of this age have examsdone every 6-8 months. This is when their mouths are changing the most and deciduous teeth are shedding and permanent teeth are coming in. Usually quite sharp.
5-15 Years This is when dental exams should be done on an annual basis. Keeping your horse on a routine schedule will help prevent major problems later in his life.
Older horses-  15+ Older horses that already have dental issues may requireexams and floating 1-3 times a year. Periodontal disease often becomes the primary concern in older horse. Diseased teeth will need to be extracted. In some cases, the horse’s diet will change to help maintain weight and good health. As the geriatric horse ages, his teeth begin to erupt slower and they eventually run out of reserve crown.
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