As with human health care prevention is the best way forward with horses as well. In addition to regular farriery attention and appropriate vaccinations routine dental care is also required for horses.
In this article I would like to break down some of the misconceptions about equine dental care, outline signs that your horse might need their teeth checked and detail choosing an appropriate person to care for your horse’s teeth.
Misconceptions about dental care:
Teeth only need checking annually
Just like with visiting your own dentist there are no hard and fast rules for the frequency of equine dental check ups. An annual check might well be appropriate, but every six months may be better for some horses. All horses should be treated as individuals and discussing the best appointment schedule with your vet or equine dental technician is best. Many owners tie a dental check with their horse’s vaccination schedule to make it easier to remember.
He’s eating fine, his teeth must be fine
This is not necessarily the case. Just like you could have dental decay but still eat your dinner. Being able to eat doesn’t mean that you should put off a visit to the dentist.
More subtle changes to eating habits can be noted as a sign that a horse needs dental attention. The horse might be dribbling feed, or washing their feed in the water bucket prior to drinking. Some horses hold their head to the side when eating, take breaks from chewing or become slow at eating, which again can indicate the need for their teeth to be looked at. Quidding may also occur, when the horse spits out small balls of hay or haylage because they can’t chew the forage properly, and also demonstrates that the horse needs their teeth checked. As with so many areas of horse care it really pays to spend time with your horse and become familiar with their individual habits, what can seem normal can actually be very telling.
Other signs to look out for:
Your horse should not have bad breath, and if the odour from your horse’s mouth is anything less than sweet smelling this can be a sign that there is trapped food decaying in their mouth somewhere. Bad breath is definitely a sign that your horse needs a dental check up.
A swollen face could be as a result of an oral infection, or a tooth abscess, and is a very clear sign that your horse needs immediate dental care, and is definitely a time to call your vet.
Choke, correctly termed esophageal obstruction, where the oesophagus becomes blocked with food can occur as a result of poor dentition as the horse can not chew its food properly. Although the horse can still breath with choke it is quite a distressing experience for both horse and owner, and is best prevented as much as possible.
Colic, most commonly impacted colic, can occur when horses are unable to thoroughly chew fibre. Regular dental care can be an important step in preventing colic along with hydration, sufficient turnout and exercise and making any dietary changes gradually.
Many owners will associate loss of weight or condition with poor dentition, as a horse cannot effectively digest and process feed that is not well chewed. The digestive process starts in the mouth, and the grinding action by the horse’s teeth is very important to ensure that the rest of the digestive system is able to work efficiently.
The stomach and intestines cannot play their role when food is not broken down as well, and vital nutrients and calories can’t be absorbed by the body, hence weight loss can be noted. Weight loss can have a number of causes and unexplained weight loss should be discussed with your vet. Dental discomfort can result in this horse refusing to eat, which would also contribute to weight loss, and is another clear indication of the need for a check up.
What is a horse dentist?
Interestingly there is no recognised term ‘horse dentist’ and it is essential that owners choose an appropriate professional to care for their horse’s teeth. In the UK only a Veterinarian, or an Equine Dental Technician, are qualified professionals for equine dental care. Owners often wonder who is the best person to check their horse’s teeth, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both – it really does come down to personal choice.
What is essential is that anyone maintaining your horse’s teeth must be qualified, registered and insured. Owners should always check the status of anyone claiming to be a ‘horse dentist’, as this is a term that anyone could use.
Only a vet can administer sedation to a horse, and for some owners this is a deciding factor, as many horses benefit from sedation for dental care. An Equine Dental Technician is legally unable to remove a tooth, as this is technically classed as surgery. Any extractions that your horse might require need a vet to perform this. It is also worth noting that many veterinary practices do have vets who have taken further qualifications in dentistry which can be worth investigating, and do ensure that your Equine Dental Technicians is registered with the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians.
Whilst you might not have to brush your horse’s teeth twice a day there is so much owners can do to keep their horses’ teeth in good condition, ensuring that their horse is happy and healthy.