Your horse needs lifelong, routine dental care. Preventive dental maintenance helps horses utilize feed better, perform without pain, and live longer, healthier lives. Our team at Leatherstocking Veterinary Services wants to explain why these procedures are so important, and why you must ensure your horse receives the care they need.

The horse’s mouth

The horse’s incisors function to chop forage, and their cheek teeth (i.e., molars and premolars) grind food material to make the substance easier to digest before swallowing. Horses begin losing their baby teeth at around 2-½ years, and typically have their full set of permanent teeth by age 5. An adult male horse has 40 permanent teeth, while mares, who are less likely to have canine teeth, have between 36 and 40 teeth. The horse’s upper cheek teeth sit farther apart than their lower cheek teeth, which means the outer edge of the upper teeth and the lingual edge of the lower teeth can develop sharp points. Horses can experience many dental issues that can greatly affect their overall wellbeing and quality of life.

Dental care for young horses

Foals should be examined shortly after birth to determine if any dental abnormalities will need addressing. Wolf teeth, which are small teeth that sit in front of the second premolar, and typically are present only in the upper jaw, usually erupt at around 5 to 6 months of age. Wolf teeth can interfere with the bit and cause discomfort and head tossing, so many owners opt to remove these teeth before they begin training.

Retained caps, which occur when the baby tooth is not shed appropriately, can also be an issue in young horses, causing problems with correct alignment and inhibiting growth of the adult tooth. A veterinary professional can easily remove the cap to correct this issue. Floating (i.e., occlusal equilibration), a procedure where the sharp edges on the outer aspect of the upper cheek teeth and the inner aspect of the lower cheek teeth are removed, should begin at around 1 to 2 years of age. Motorized equipment and hand tools may be necessary to address the sharp points and hooks, and sedation is sometimes necessary for the horse to cooperate.

Dental care for adult horses

Horses between ages 2 and 5 need dental evaluations every six months. This is the time period when the majority of their teeth are shed and replaced. Baby teeth are softer than adult teeth, and tend to develop sharper points than permanent teeth, so frequent floating is necessary to prevent ulcerations on the horse’s cheeks and tongue. Horses affected by malocclusions may need more frequent dental care, since these conditions can cause difficulty eating and the formation of large dental hooks. Horses older than 5 years should have a professional veterinary dental evaluation at least once a year, to maintain correct dental alignment and address any dental problems before they cause health issues. 

Dental care for senior horses

Horses older than 17 years of age are at increased risk for periodontal disease, the most common cause of tooth loss in horses. The forage that horses eat acts as a toothbrush to remove debris from their teeth, but as they get older, they are more likely to have gaps between their teeth where food particles can become lodged, attracting bacteria, and leading to periodontal disease. An oral speculum exam is required to appropriately evaluate a horse for this condition, and oral X-rays may be necessary to determine the extent of disease and bone loss. Treatment typically involves antibiotics, with removal of the affected tooth, depending on the disease severity. 

Senior horses are also at higher risk for equine odontoclastic tooth resorption and hypercementosis (EOTRH). This condition involves severe changes to the tooth roots and surrounding gingiva, and most commonly affects the incisors and canines. EOTRH results in chronic inflammation and infection of the affected tissues, causing the horse significant pain. The most common initial sign is the inability to grasp apples and carrots, since the incisors are so painful. Intraoral X-rays are needed to properly assess the condition and formulate a treatment plan. In moderate to severe cases, the teeth must be removed to alleviate the pain and help treat the infection. 

Recognizing dental problems in horses

Horses affected by dental problems are good at adapting, and may not exhibit obvious signs of pain or irritation. Indications of dental problems in horses include:

  • Quidding — Horses affected by painful dental issues may spit out balls of partially chewed hay or grass.
  • Packing food— Sharp points on the horse’s upper teeth can cause them to pack hay or grass in their cheek to protect the soft tissue from being gouged. You may notice an apparent growth on your horse’s face, but on further investigation, find the lump of accumulated food.
  • Dropping food— You may notice they drop grain when attempting to eat.
  • Losing weight — Horses who can’t effectively chew their food may lose conditioning.
  • Head tossing — Affected horses may toss their head, especially when they have a bit in their mouth.
  • Head tilting — You may notice your horse tilting their head when they eat.
  • Performing poorly — Horses may express their discomfort by not performing as well, or misbehaving during a ride.
  • Nasal discharge or odor — You may notice discharge from their nose, or a foul odor from their mouth or nose.

Ensure you provide your horse with regular dental care to keep them comfortable and healthy. If you would like to schedule a dental float, contact our team at Leatherstocking Veterinary Services, so we can ensure your horse’s mouth is in tip top shape.