Equine Dentistry

By: Mary Newell Sanders, DVM

TVMA Member
Bellville, TX

Published February 2015

Regular dental exams and dental care are necessary to keep your horse healthy and comfortable. The teeth of horses are very different from those of humans. Horses have hypsodont teeth, meaning they are continuously erupting. The adult teeth in a young horse are very large (approximately three to four inches long) but are buried in the skull and erupt through the gumline throughout the horse’s life. This allows the horse to continue to graze despite the natural wearing down of the teeth by hay and feed. Because their teeth are constantly erupting and the wear on each tooth is not the same, horses regularly develop sharp points and other painful abnormalities (called a malocclusion) on their teeth.

What are horses’ teeth like?

Horses have both deciduous (baby) and permanent teeth like humans. The upper and lower incisors are the first teeth to erupt. The first, second and third incisors will erupt at approximately six days, six weeks and six months, respectively. Every foalA young horse. should have its mouth examined for congenital abnormalities (birth defects) that may affect its health and performance later in life. It is then important to make sure that the deciduous (baby) teeth are coming in normally. A dental exam should be done when you begin vaccinating your foal (usually around four months of age) and, after that, yearly at a minimum.

Adult horses have between 38 and 44 teeth, depending on gender and whether or not wolf teeth develop. Your horse should have a full mouth of adult teeth by five years of age. Wolf teeth are tiny peg teeth that erupt just in front of the rows of cheek teeth. They have no known chewing function. The incisors are used for grasping and nipping feed. Canine teeth are usually present only in male horses and serve as fighting teeth; they have no chewing function. The molars and premolars – the cheek teeth – each have a corrugatedShaped into alternate ridges and grooves. grinding surface used to grind feed and hay. This grinding surface wears off against the opposing tooth and on feed and hay. The loss of tooth at the chewing surface is replaced over time by the tooth’s continual eruption. The upper rows of cheek teeth are set further apart than the lower rows, allowing the jaw to move in a circular fashion as the horse chews.

What are some dental issues for horses?

Due to the structure of the teeth, there are a number of different commonly occurring dental problems in horses. Retained baby teeth – called caps – can cause discomfort while eating and interfere with normal grinding movement. Since the canine teeth have no known chewing function, they often develop sharp points due to lack of use. Wolf teeth often cause discomfort with contact from the bit. Horses also can develop tooth root abscesses or suffer traumatic fractures. Older animals may lose some teeth, resulting in abnormal wear and overgrowth of the contacting tooth. Most common, however, is the development of dental points. As previously mentioned, the upper rows of cheek teeth are further apart than the lower rows, so as these teeth wear, there are sharp points that form on the outer edges of the upper cheek teeth and on the inner edges of the lower cheek teeth. When excessively large or sharp, these points may damage the cheek and/or tongue, causing pain. Overgrown teeth may interfere with normal jaw movement and the grinding of feed and hay. Common signs of dental problems in horses include difficulty chewing, drooling, dropping feed, eating slowly, weight loss and lethargy.

Treating equine dental issues

The key to diagnosing, treating and preventing all of these problems is regular careful dental examination. Frequency of care depends on a number of factors, including age, management and genetics, but is typically recommended yearly, at minimum. Proper equine dentistry care starts with a thorough history and physical exam. After examination, any noted oral abnormalities should be corrected.

Dental issues in horses are usually treated by floating the horse’s teeth. Floating is done under sedation, and while it can be done by hand, it is more commonly done with motorized equipment, such as specialized rasps attached to a drill motor base. Floating the teeth preserves maximal grinding surface of the teeth, removes any uncomfortable overgrowth, achieves maximum jaw mobility and increases the comfort and acceptance of the bit. This will improve comfort in both eating and performance under tack. Depending on the degree of disease noted in your horse’s mouth, your veterinarian may or may not be able to correct all the damage in one sitting; he or she may recommend rechecking the horse every six months or more frequently.

It is always easier to prevent disease and damage than to correct it. Having your horse’s mouth examined regularly by someone trained to recognize oral abnormalities will go a long way toward maximizing not only your horse’s oral health but also its overall well-being.

Dr. Mary Newell Sanders practices at Marek Veterinary Clinics in Bellville and Sealy, Texas.

  • Douglas Brown

    A friend of ours has quite a few horses, and we saw him taking care of them. Then he mentioned equine dentistry and we were pretty confused as to what it was. We figured it out, given the context, but didn’t really realize that it was a thing. It seems like they have dental issues like any other animal, and it is great that there is a lot of care being given to these amazing animals. http://horizonequine.net/Services.html