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Preventive Medicine: The Importance of Caring for Your Teeth

It is surprising to say the least the scant attention that has generally been paid, until relatively recently, to caring for horse teeth and the problems and pathologies associated with it. It is even more surprising, if possible, when we have all suffered to a greater or lesser extent the experience of a toothache. Routine care of the horse’s teeth is of great importance to maintaining its general health and well-being. If we maintain adequate oral and dental health, the horse will be more comfortable by feeling free of aches and pains, it will be able to use the nutrients in its diet effectively and without wasting food, we will avoid a decline in athletic performance due to poor nutrition and pain associated with teeth and snacks, and ultimately, you will live longer more comfortably.

Horses have evolved as herbivorous animals that roam most of the time in search of food in the form of forages, and their teeth are perfectly adapted to this task. They are used by the incisor teeth to cut and pluck grass and forage; molars and premolars have wider, flatter, and rougher surfaces and are used to crush and form the bolus before it is swallowed. Like humans, horses have deciduous or infant teeth, and permanent or adult teeth, but they differ from us in that their teeth are made up of a large crown, mostly hidden in the dental socket of the bone, and that allows its growth and continuous wear until very advanced ages.

Knowing the times of tooth eruption is important because it will help us detect problems associated with teething changes. The first deciduous or milk tooth can appear in the foal before it is born, and the last when it reaches 8 months of age. All these teeth will be replaced by permanent or adult teeth, starting around two and a half years of age, and leaving a full adult mouth at five years, where we could count up to forty-two teeth in the horse (if we include the wolf teeth), and thirty-eight in the mare, where the canines do not develop.

To begin with, we must learn to identify the signs that alert us to the existence of dental problems, such as pain or irritation, since they may not be so obvious if the horse has learned to endure and live with them. For this reason, regular dental examinations are essential and constitute one of the pillars of Preventive Medicine, thus identifying small problems before they become more expensive and difficult to treat. Signs that definitely demand immediate attention are the loss or fall of food when the animal is eating, difficulty in chewing, excessive salivation, thinning, presence of large or undigested pieces of food in the stool, head bent towards a side or nodding, biting or resisting the bite, sticking the tongue out, decreased performance, bad odor from the mouth (halitosis) or nose, blood in the mouth, nasal discharge, and swelling of the face or jaw.

Horses’ teeth continue to grow throughout their lives and are mechanically worn away by chewing, which includes lateral jaw movements. Horses that graze for most of the day are continually foraging for grass on the ground, picking up gravel and dust particles that, along with the chemical constituents of the grass, naturally wear down the teeth. The domestication of horses has caused them to spend most of the time in stables and they are not exposed to the same degree of natural wear and tear. They also do not eat continuously but their meals, consisting of processed feed and hay, are restricted to two or three times a day, and these soft foods require less chewing. All of this contributes to the horse’s teeth becoming too long and not wearing evenly.

Tomb of Neb-Amon, in the upper part a chariot with a team of horses, the lower part with a team of onagers.

Regardless of the horses’ handling and stabling conditions, their teeth tend to develop sharp points as a result of their anatomy and chewing: the lower jaw is narrower than the upper jaw, and food is crushed by chewing towards the sides. These sharp points are thus formed on the lateral face of the upper (maxillary) molars closest to the cheeks, and on the face in contact with the tongue of the lower (mandibular) molars.

The mouth examination is an essential part of the annual physical examination to be performed by the veterinarian, and at the Sierra de Madrid Veterinary Hospital it is an integral part of our popular Preventive Medicine program. This detailed oral examination is followed by the appropriate preventive and treatment techniques in each case, taking into account factors such as the horse’s age, and the existence or not of certain pathologies, including those that affect it systemically; such is the case of horses with a decrease in the function of their immune system.

The most common dental procedure performed by veterinarians is the scraping of the horse’s teeth, which allows to eliminate the tips that are created by a misalignment of the teeth, create a suitable settlement for the bite, and help maintain the proper length of incisors and molars. Other less frequent pathologies, but no less important to identify, are infections of the teeth and gums, mouth ulcers and abscesses, the presence of very long hooks in the molars, the loss and fractures of teeth, tumors, etc. These pathologies may require surgical treatment with or without extraction of the affected teeth, and there is no one better than your veterinarian to diagnose them and advise you on their treatment.

Tomb of Neb-Amon, in the upper part a chariot with a team of horses, the lower part with a team of onagers.

Tooth filing is especially important in horses that have lost a tooth, and in those in which their teeth are poorly positioned and the upper teeth do not overlap well with the lower teeth. Normally, contact with the opposite tooth keeps both tooth surfaces even in terms of wear. When a tooth is not aligned (bottom to top), tips and hooks develop. If these abnormalities go unnoticed, the tips or hooks become large enough to traumatize and ulcerate the soft tissues of the mouth, such as the inner surfaces of the cheeks and tongue. When these tips are small, they are removed with manual tools, but if they are large, mechanical tools similar to the lathes of human dentists are used.

Wolf teeth (premolars 1) are small and located in front of the second premolar, they very rarely appear on the lower jaw, and a horse may have one, two, or none. Although not all wolf teeth are problematic, early extraction is common when they are easier to extract, and before they become a source of pain and interfere with biting, especially in competition horses.

The age of the horse is the factor that will most determine the degree of care and the frequency of veterinary care that its teeth require. Horses starting training for the first time, especially between the ages of two and three, require a thorough oral and dental examination. Your teeth need to be filed to remove tips, to make sure that there are no problems with the change of teeth and that they do not retain the deciduous. It is advisable to do this test before starting sports training, thus avoiding the problems they cause.

Horses between the ages of two and five may require more frequent dental examinations than adults, as baby teeth are somewhat softer than permanent teeth and may develop tips more quickly. In addition, if we take into account that during this period of their life is when they will change all their milk teeth for adult teeth, we will understand that the possibilities of dental abnormalities in this age group increase greatly, as well as its consequences. It is advisable that these horses are examined twice a year, correcting any abnormalities that are found in time.

Finally, adult horses should undergo dental exams at least once a year, whether or not they have evidence of dental problems. It is very important to keep the surface of the teeth that grind food as uniform as possible throughout the life of the horse, because when they reach their geriatric age (more than twenty years) the teeth stop growing when they exhaust their reserve of dental crown, and if we wait until then, the surfaces may be excessively and / or unevenly worn, so trying to align them can be an impossible task. Therefore, geriatric horses should be examined every six to eight months, or more frequently depending on the dental alterations or pathologies they suffer from.

As a summary we can highlight the following points:

  • The best medicine is that capable of preventing the appearance or development of pathologies, so in a good plan of Preventive Medicine It is essential to care for and maintain the health of your horse.
  • If a horse begins to have behavior problems, you have to rule out dental problems as a potential cause.
  • Teeth should be examined, filed and kept in good condition by a veterinary professional at least annually, or more frequently depending on your age and the dental pathologies that you present.
  • Wolf teeth are routinely extracted at an early age in competition horses to avoid interference with the bite and the pain associated with it.
  • Sedation, local anesthesia, and pain relievers They help the horse to relax during therapeutic dental procedures, facilitating them and making a good job possible. These drugs can only be administered by a veterinarian.
  • Teeth that move are generally not healthy teeth, and will likely have to be removed, thus reducing the chances of infection and other related problems.
  • Canine teeth, generally present in adult males and some mares, are filed, rounded and reduced in length to avoid interference with the bite.
  • Depending on the oral and dental health of the horse, the vet may need more than one visit to treat them properly.
  • It is important discover dental problems early. If we wait too long, the treatment will not only be more difficult and expensive, but it can also become impossible.

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