Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Straight to the Horse's Mouth


Pet Column for the week of October 6, 2008


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

Although equine dentists cannot have their patients lie down in a reclining chair for easy access to those hard to reach molars, the field has progressed greatly in the past 20 years. It is now possible to perform a root canal or a tooth extraction on a horse, just as in humans.

In 1988, the American Veterinary Dental College was formed, allowing veterinarians who have already completed their degree to train further to become a board certified veterinary dentist. Dr. Carol Akers is a dentistry resident at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. She explains that in contrast to human teeth :the majority of a horse's 40 or so teeth are hypsodont, meaning they erupt throughout most of the horse's life, or up until age 30 or 35."

Because of this and the fact that horses do more grinding with their teeth than cats and dogs, it is imperative they receive routine dental care. In addition, horse teeth do not neatly line up as do human teeth. Their maxilla, or upper part of their skull, is wider than their mandible. This anatomical arrangement causes horses to form razor sharp points on some of their teeth that can lead to significant problems such as ulcers on their tongue and inside cheek.

Dr. Akers mentions that signs owners might see indicating a horse may have a dental problem are:

  • Large fibers and whole pieces of grain in the horse's manure
  • Weight loss
  • Reaction to the bit
  • Tilting of the head while eating
  • Quidding (dropping large clumps of food on the ground while eating)


Unlike in the wild, today's horses spend less time grinding very fibrous substances because many are fed pelleted feeds and softer roughages such as hay," explains Dr. Akers. This makes horses much more prone to dental overgrowths and developing points.

A point refers to the common problem of sharp edges developing on the cheek side of upper molars and the tongue side of lower molars because horses chew side to side and not up and down as humans do. To correct this problem, horses need to have their teeth "floated." To float a horse means to take a rasp, much like a nail file, to shave off some of the overgrown tooth.

"Every horse should receive a thorough dental exam annually," mentions Dr. Akers. "It is necessary that the veterinarian sedate the horse and use a full mouth speculum to examine and palpate each and every tooth in the horse's mouth."

She goes on to explain that without a speculum, which is the metal device used to keep a horse's mouth open during a dental exam, a bright light, and sedation, it is impossible to do a complete and safe dental exam.

But Dr. Akers has one word of caution regarding the newer electric rasps that some people use to float horses: they can do more harm than good. Because the tools are electric, it is quite easy for a novice to overfloat and take off more tooth than necessary.

"We have seen horses with rotting teeth come in because whoever floated their teeth ten years ago with an electric rasp filed away too much of the tooth and exposed the pulp," says Dr. Akers.

To prevent your horse from developing painful dental conditions have your veterinarian do a thorough oral exam every year.