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No tooth, no horse!

THAT HEADLINE might be a different take on the old adage 'no foot, no horse' but there is no doubt that routine dental care is just as important as routine farriery.

Regular dental care forms an essential part of your horse's healthcare. The horse's mouth has adapted over thousands of years to cope well with fibre such as hay or haylage and grass.

This requires a good deal of chewing which essentially wears the horse's teeth down over time - usually around 2-3mm per year.

Fortunately, horses have a good deal of 'reserve' tooth which erupts into the mouth to replace the tooth enamel which has been worn away. The horse chews in a circular motion which wears down the teeth evenly in spite of the lower jaw being naturally narrower than the upper jaw.

However, hard feeds and even hay or haylage do not require as much chewing and this may lead to sharp points developing on the outside of the upper teeth and the inside of lower teeth.

These enamel points can then traumatise the soft tissues of the mouth, most commonly the tongue and the cheeks. The development of breeds we recognise today has also lead to other dental problems such as overcrowding and incorrectly positioned teeth very common.

Things that may suggest a dental problem or mouth pain include:

Quidding (dropping of partially chewed food from the mouth)

Halitosis

Choke

Colic

Resentment of the bit or the rider taking a contact

Unilateral nasal discharge

Reduced quantities of hay/haylage being eaten

The list is not exhaustive and its important to remember than many horses are very good at hiding the signs of a problem!

Routine dental care

Most horses with good dentition will require a check at least every 12 months, although more frequent examinations may be required in older animals or those with a dental problem.

Broadly speaking, the first dental examination a horse will have is at the post-foaling check up shortly after birth to check for any congenital problems like parrot mouth or a cleft palate.

Thereafter, from eighteen months old, the deciduous baby teeth will be lost and so from two years of age the horse's teeth should be regularly examined. Certainly, it is vital that the mouth is checked prior to bitting for the first time.

In general, routine dental examination will include a few questions about your horse's general health, eating and any ridden issues before moving onto a thorough inspection of the mouth using a gag.

Here, we are looking for any abnormalities, such as sharp edges, overgrown or displaced teeth, food packing between teeth or ulceration of the tongue or cheeks. Sharp edges and overgrowths can then be rasped either by hand or using motorised dental equipment.

Motorised equipment can allow precise reduction of any overgrown teeth but can much be taken not to damage the soft tissues of the mouth. More complex problems will of course require more advanced treatment.

Many horses will require a small amount of sedation for routine dental care to allow a more complete examination and appropriate rasping to be performed safely.

Routine dental care can be provided by your vet or by suitably trained and qualified equine dental technicians (EDTs).

If a dental technician is treating your horse, it is strongly advisable that they are a member of the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians, meaning that they have been thoroughly trained and assessed.

There are also some legal restrictions as to what procedures an EDT can perform so complex treatment will generally be required to be undertaken by a qualified vet who can also administer any necessary sedation and provide appropriate pain relief.

Advanced dentistry

Early identification of dental problems through regular checks should prevent some more complex dental conditions arising but in spite of best efforts, sometimes more advanced care will be required. Some examples are below:

Tooth fractures - These can occur because there is decay present in the affected tooth or due to trauma.

Horses may be trying to eat but appear to be unable to do so and may salivate more than normal.

The extent of the fracture will guide treatement: in some cases, simply removal of a loose fragment and smoothing of any sharp edges will be needed whilst in other cases, the entire tooth may require extraction

Infundibular caries - decay within the tooth, leaving it weaker and more susceptible to fractures and root infections.

At the cutting edge of equine dentistry, some teeth with caries will be suitable to be drilled out and then filled, in a similar way to human dentistry, to prevent any further decay occurring. Such procedures are very specialist and only being undertaken by a handful of vets in the UK at the moment.

Diastemata and periodontal disease - a diastema is a gap between the cheek teeth which allows food to become trapped and leads to inflammation and infection of the surrounding gum tissue which is very painful.

Affected horses may drop food, lose weight, pouch food in their cheeks or have an unpleasant smell from their mouths

Treatment will vary a little depending on the severity of the problem. In mild cases, flushing out and packing of the diastemata and smoothing of ridges on the opposing teeth may be sufficient.

But in more severe cases, or those which do not respond to the above, mechanical widening of the gaps may be required to prevent food being trapped and allow the gum to heal.

Performing such a procedure requires great care and heavy sedation as it must be done with great accuracy to prevent any damage to the teeth. Treatment may have to be repeated several times.