Veterinary Dentistry

What is Equine Veterinary Dentistry?

In times past, dentistry was not the domain of the veterinarian. Teeth were rasped with hand held files and fractious horses had to be physically restrained. Wolf teeth were knocked out with screwdrivers and hammers, fracturing them at the roots. Diseased teeth were pulled out without local anaesthesia.

Today, Equine Veterinary Dentistry is performed by veterinarians with a special interest in the horse’s mouth. Horses are safely and legally sedated, specially designed instruments are used to fully examine the mouth and to address any problems found. Where necessary, local anaesthetic, pre and post treatment pain relief and antibiotics are also used. Diagnostic imaging such as Radiography may also be employed.

Why Equine Veterinary Dentistry?

Using an Equine Dental Veterinarian is like you going to your qualified dentist. Regular dental care in horses, as in humans, is important, related to their dental anatomy, the way the teeth grown, and develop as well as their diet.

At least 24 deciduous or baby teeth and up to 44 permanent teeth erupt through the gums of your horse, up to 68. The eruption and shedding of these teeth at different times are sometimes fraught with problems and can lead to extreme pain and lifelong suffering.

Permanent teeth of horses continue to erupt until they fall out. The upper jaw is 30% wider than the lower jaw. As a result, sharp enamel points develop on the buccal (cheek) aspect of the upper cheek teeth and the lingual (tongue) aspect of the lower cheek teeth. These points cause trauma to soft tissues and must be rounded off. This is especially so in horses fed predominantly grains and pellets.

Horses solely on pasture do not develop sharp enamel points as quickly due to the abrasive silicates in grass. To get the most nutrition out of food, the first step of chewing is of utmost importance. Horses with uncomfortable mouths will not chew properly, grains will be passed out with manure, and you will be wasting your money feeding the birds. The mouth is a point of contact for you to communicate with your horse when you are riding. For optimal response from your horse, his mouth has to be comfortable. Even horses ridden with hackamores or bitless bridles can suffer discomfort when the cheeks are pushed into the sides of the cheek teeth. Horses with painful mouths will not concentrate on the task and will not perform optimally.

Wild horses have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years. In the domestic horse, this can be extended to 30 to 40 years with proper medical and dental care. Preserving as many teeth as possible in old age starts with good veterinary dental care early on in life.

Who Performs Equine Veterinary Dentistry?

It now takes 6 years of study to become a veterinarian. The fields of study include anatomy and physiology of animals and pharmacology and use of drugs. Our Equine Dental Veterinarians undertake further training in the field of equine veterinary dentistry.

When should Equine Veterinary Dental Care start?

A veterinary examination should commence at birth. The newborn foal should be examined for conditions such as overbite, underbite, cleft palate and wry nose.

From then on, an examination should be performed every 6 months until the age of 6 years when all permanent teeth should have erupted. Horses with good dentition can then be examined every 6 to 12 months until age 20. Past 20 years, geriatric dental problems start to arise and an examination should be performed every 6 months again. This is a very general guide and some horses require more frequent treatments, some as often as every 2 months.

How is Equine Veterinary Dentistry Performed?

A brief clinical examination is first performed on your horse. Once satisfied that he is fit and healthy, a loading dose of sedation is administered. An external examination of the head and face is then performed. The mouth is then thoroughly rinsed, followed by a detailed examination of the mouth and teeth using a mouth speculum to keep the mouth open, a bright light source for illumination, and a dental mirror to explore pulp cavities, diastemata or periodontal pockets. Sharp enamel points are rounded off with a diamond disc attached to a power float. Abnormalities detected are corrected. Top up sedations are usually required and all instruments are disinfected before use.

Many oro-dental problems are missed when horses are given cursory examinations. Most of these problems are more effectively treated if detected early. Signs of pain such as difficulty in chewing, dropping food, drooling or bit resistance cannot be relied on as an indication of oro-dental disease because these signs can be absent even when the disease is at an advanced stage. The most reliable means of early detection is a detailed visual examination of a clean mouth with lights, mirror and if necessary, an endoscope in a sedated horse.

How do I know if my Horse requires Veterinary Dental Treatment?

Horses are herd animals. An individual showing signs of weakness will be kicked down the pecking order and be singled out by predators. Therefore, most horses will not display any obvious signs even when they are in discomfort, until the pain becomes extreme. Signs may include weight loss or failure to gain weight, no appetite, spilling feed, drooling, colic, choke, passing grains and long stems in faeces and foul breath. When ridden, he may resist the bit, head toss, chew the bit, extend his neck (get ahead of the bit), tuck in his chin (get behind the bit), rear up, gape his mouth and pin his ears and fail to collect. With or without these signs, your horse should receive a veterinary dental examination every 6 to 12 months depending on his age and dental condition.


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