Because of their continuous eruption and the wearing of teeth, horses have an increased risk of dental disease. Luckily, horses rarely have problems with tooth decay or gum disease.
Your horse chews feed by chewing in a circular motion, where the lower jaw slides along the upper teeth. This circular motion is responsible for maintaining the occlusive surface of the teeth. As horses eat smaller feed particles, this motion is reduced. While eating grain/pelleted feed, horses chew in almost an up-and-down manner.
If a tooth is lost or worn abnormally, the opposing tooth will continue to erupt from the gum line. This dominant tooth continues to wear into the opposing arcade without having an appropriate grinding surface. This magnifies the abnormality. Eventually, this can result in mouth pain and abnormal chewing patterns. Abnormal chewing can result in weight loss, tooth infection/abscess, sinus infection, or even impaction colic.
Here are some common abnormalities found on dental examination.
- Sharp points: caused by uneven grinding surface. Points tend to occur on the buccal (lip) side of the upper cheek teeth, and lingual (tongue) side of the lower cheek teeth. If left untreated, these points can form ulcerations in the mouth, and cause head throwing or pain with the bit.
- Hooks: formed when teeth are unopposed. This is most common when the opposing tooth is lost, or at the front or rear of the dental arcade. If left untreated, they will eventually impact the opposite gum.
- Wave mouth: caused by several teeth becoming dominant. The dental arcade will have high and low sections. For this condition, it is important to identify the dominant teeth and make it level with the arcade. The opposing arcade that has been worn away will be left to grow back. This condition requires life-long monitoring.
- Steps: occurs when a tooth is longer than the rest of those in the entire arcade. Usually occurs when opposing cheek teeth are missing and/or diseased. It requires life-long monitoring.
- Shear mouth occurs when horse is only using one side of its mouth, resulting in one side being worn faster than the other. Usually, see a slant to the incisors as well.
- Deciduous teeth problems: when horses are approximately 2.5 years to approximately 4.5 years old, they shed their deciduous or milk teeth. These are commonly called caps. If these caps are not shed properly, it can cause young horses to have pain while chewing.
In addition, incisors continue to erupt as a horse ages. Incisors can also wear abnormally or become loose. Uneven incisors will influence normal side-to-side chewing motion, and can even prevent normal occlusion of the cheek teeth. Incisors are evaluated and treated after the cheek teeth are treated.
It is essential to do a thorough dental examination every six months for young (<5 years) and older (>20 years) horses. In our practice, we recommend a six-month dental examination for all horses showing, as sharp points and even minor hooks can greatly impact your horse’s comfort while performing. Your horse’s health and survival depend on their ability to chew and grind feed. Proper dental care allows your horse to eat better, be healthier and have fewer mouth problems.