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The Basics of Equine Dentistry, Straight from the Horse's Mouth

Pet Column for the week of August 8, 2002

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Services - Dentistry

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

In the past, many horse owners let non-professionals attend to their horse's mouth. Now more people recognize the value of equine veterinary dentists for their horse's overall well-being.

Dr. Gordon Baker, a retired professor at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, is a pioneer in the field of equine dentistry and a leader in the promotion of proper equine dental care. He explains that the approach used in examining a horse's mouth is very different from the approach used for humans or small animals.

"In order to see gum disease in a dog's mouth, all you have to do is roll back the lips and look at the gums. Unfortunately this approach will not work with horses because their teeth and gums are so much more complex and the mouth is so much bigger," says Dr. Baker. "Performing a thorough equine oral exam requires special equipment and technique in addition to the use of sedatives to keep the animal calm during the exam."

The equine mouth is composed of a set of cutting teeth in the front called incisors and a set (arcade) of six larger grinding teeth (called cheek teeth) on top and bottom on both sides of the mouth in the back.

"One must realize that a horse's mouth is actually a very elegantly designed food preparation system," says Dr. Baker. "Each upper tooth is perfectly matched with a lower tooth. They are linked with a very intricate pattern of grooves and ridges that grind food thoroughly before swallowing."

Problems begin when the teeth lose contact with each other. If the teeth do not rub together evenly, some teeth may overgrow while others are worn down too far. Ultimately chewing can be curtailed or even prevented as the blades of the "food processor" lose contact with each other. "These types of dental problems are most widely known as 'abnormalities of wear'," says Dr. Gordon. Because unchewed food cannot be digested properly, this can lead to numerous problems, including, in extreme cases, starvation.

"The essence of equine dentistry is knowing how to examine a horse's mouth and relate the lesions in the mouth to the overall health of the horse," says Dr. Baker. "The most effective way to prevent problems is to put a program in place that maintains the horse's ability to process food efficiently." A good preventative plan requires yearly oral exams by an equine veterinarian and any maintenance that may be required to correct any developing abnormalities of wear.

According to Dr. Baker, most of the horses that require routine dental inspections and dental work are those that live indoors. The horse that lives in the field and must forage for food puts a lot more work into chewing than a horse that is always stabled. "The stabled horse that eats hay and grain from a bin does not give its teeth the full range of work so they eventually become a bit misshapen," says Dr. Baker. "This can then start the process of dental disease."

Working on the equine mouth can be tiring. "After all, you can't make the horse lie down in a chair like a person," says Dr. Baker. The field of equine dentistry has been driven by the development of new power tools that take away some of the hard work of the job. Advances in the understanding of the ergonomics of working in horses' mouths are also making the experience more pleasant for both the horse and the veterinarian.

"Your equine veterinarian should be aware of the importance of the horse's mouth," says Dr. Baker "One of the fundamentals of good health care of the horse is to ensure that the food that goes into the mouth gets used as efficiently as possible."

If you have questions about equine dentistry, please contact your equine veterinarian.