New Mexico's Pet Resource EDITORS' PICKS



By Robert Gruda, D.V.M.

Although most horse owners in our community make a commitment to provide excellent care for their horses, including quality feed, adequate shelter, exercise programs and annual preventative health care, only a few realize how important it is to have routine dental examinations and oral health checkups. The truth is, maintaining good dental health is just as important to your horses performance and longevity as good quality feed, shelter, etc. Even minor dental problems can cause horses to lose weight, fight head gear and bits, experience oral pain, and unfortunately don’t achieve their full potential. This is extremely important in competitive horses.

Many horse owners already have their veterinarian providing preventative care on an annual or biannual basis. This includes deworming, vaccinations, sheath cleaning, and evaluating dental health. In years past, the dental aspect was limited to floating or filing the large cheek teeth. These are the teeth that crush and grind feed, thus providing the digestive system with material that can be easily broken down and absorbed. These cheek teeth are very long in young horses and extend far into the horse’s skull and jaw. As the horse ages, these teeth are worn down and shortened during the chewing process causing the teeth to form sharp points on the edges. This leads to poor crushing and breakdown of feed followed by weight loss. Floating the teeth with a special file smoothes the points and allows proper mastication.

Unfortunately, this is not the only problem we should be addressing. Uneven wear of these large cheek teeth can occur. If a tooth is lost during the horse’s life, the opposing tooth has nothing to wear it down. This tooth will then extend into the opposing surface and cause pain during chewing. In older horses, the cheek teeth can wear unevenly, causing a wave or step-like surface. This leads to inadequate chewing of feed. Teeth can also become chipped, fractured, and abscessed.

Teeth problems can lead to difficult handling. The wolf teeth are two very small teeth that sit just in front of the first large upper cheek teeth. These small teeth and the adjacent larger cheek teeth can interfere with a horse’s bit causing a horse to throw its head while being ridden.. The first and last cheek teeth can develop painful hooks from uneven wear. The front teeth, or incisors, can lead to problems with chewing and handling if they are abnormal. The canine teeth are the fang-type teeth in male horses and some female horses that lie between the incisors and the cheek teeth. There are indications where these teeth need to be cut and leveled at the gum line.

These problems cannot be solved with simple floating. However, with the advent of new power rotary tools and files, all of the problems can be corrected by your veterinarian. Even the very old, poorly conditioned horse with severe dental problems can improve greatly with correction and reduction of uneven dental wear and thus improve their condition.

So in evaluating your horse’s overall preventative program, make sure to include the proper dental examination and treatment by your veterinarian. It will make a big difference in your horse’s performance and overall quality of life.

Robert Gruda is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with his own clinic south of Santa Fe.

Note: This article first appeared in the Spring 1998 issue.

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