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Equine Dental Care Prevents a Mouthful of Problems

Pet Column for the week of October 30, 2000

Related information:

Services - Dentistry

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

"Many of the dental diseases in horses, as in people, could be categorized as silent
diseases," says Dr. Gordon Baker, equine veterinarian retired from the University of Illinois
Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, and author of the first-ever book written on equine
dentistry. "It is incorrect to assume that if a horse's body condition is normal, his teeth are
okay. If you don't look in the mouth, you won't see the problems," says Dr. Baker.

Clues to why horses may develop dental disease lie in its natural history. A horse's long legs
and large jaw are perfectly adapted for a pastoral lifestyle -- walking around a field or
pasture and grazing and nibbling all day. The constant grinding and chewing is good for
horse's teeth, which keep growing, or erupting, throughout its life. "Since a horse's teeth
continually erupt, the natural grazing activity helps teeth to wear down correctly, " says Dr.

Teeth can also wear incorrectly. Often that happens when horses are kept inside and fed
grain. "Those horses use a smaller lateral excursion (side-to-side movement) to chew grain,
which causes the edges to develop sharp points," says Dr. Baker. The sharp points can
irritate the horse's mouth, causing a host of problems from oral ulcers to tooth loss and
irreversible dental damage.

To understand the way dental problems in horses are rooted in what the horse eats,
compare how you chew lettuce with how you chew nuts. The chewing motion for each of
those foods is different. Similarly, in horses, the side-to-side motion used to chew grass is
very different from the more up-and-down motion they use to munch on grain. The
side-to-side motion horses use to eat grass has the very important job of wearing the edges
of the teeth evenly so that no sharp edges are left.

Sharp edges can cut into a horse's cheek and be quite painful. Often a horse with an area of
discomfort will feel just like you do with a canker sore. He may not take a bit easily, may
be hard to turn in one direction, may chew only on one side, or may lose weight because it
hurts to eat.

To gain the most nutrition out of what they eat, a horse's teeth must work efficiently to grind
and crush the food. "Efficiency of the teeth and how well they work depends on structure,"
says Dr. Baker. Any irregularities of wear, abnormal eruptions, or periodontal disease can
affect how efficiently horses digest what they eat.

While good body condition does not automatically equal good teeth, good teeth will mean a
more efficient horse. "Horse feed is very rich. The bottom line is that if you take care of a
horse's teeth, you'll allow the horse to take full advantage of the food given, which can save
money in feed," says Dr. Baker.

A veterinarian can easily file away, or "float," the rough edges to eliminate any discomfort
for the horse that could lead to further dental disease or tooth loss. Dr. Baker emphasizes a
thorough oral examination, palpation of the mouth documentation of any dental
abnormalities, such as irregular wear or abnormal eruptions. "Teeth should be examined as
part of a horse's routine health care. For a stabled horse, floating teeth twice a year should
nip any potential problems in the bud," he says.

Keeping your horse's teeth in tip-top shape is a very important part of routine care. Routine
dental care will prevent problems that, left unchecked, may not be correctable. To find out
more about dental care and your horse, contact your local equine veterinarian.