Talking Teeth for National Equine Dental Health Month

An equine dental expert lays out the top things owners should know about their horse’s dental health.

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Dental Exam and Floating
A dental exam, which could be followed by floating the teeth, should be done at least once a year, per recommendations from the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Photo by Chelle129/Shutterstock

February is National Equine Dental Health Month, so Jeff Hall, DVM, with Equine Technical Services at Zoetis recently hosted a webinar to share some survey findings that could help horse owners keep their horses’ dental health in peak condition.

Hall states that dental problems can have an impact on a horse’s behavior; this may seem obvious, but it’s often the last thing people think of if their horse has a sudden change.

Tooth Abscess Pain

Hall discussed a paper published in the June 2019 Journal of Equine Veterinary Science (“Behavioral Signs Associated With Equine Periapical Infection in Cheek Teeth”) that hypothesized that removing an abscessed tooth would reduce or eliminate behavior problems, since pain affects behavior.

◆ In the study, 86% of horses that had abscessed teeth removed showed reduced behavioral signs, while 50% showed a complete elimination of these signs.
◆ 88% showed fewer bit-related behavior signs, and 38% no longer saw any bit-related behavior signs after the abscessed tooth was removed.

Owner Survey

According to a 2020 equine dental wellness survey conducted by Zoetis of 4,500 horse owners, 73% of owners had horses with signs of dental pain, and 22% of their horses had not had a dental exam in more than one year.

What constitutes “signs of dental pain?” Some examples of dental pain signs from the survey include: problems with eating and drinking, eating hay slowly, dropping hay, evading the bit, a difference between right and left rein contact, withdrawn or asocial behavior, and head-shyness.

Recommended Dental Care

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends an annual dental exam for most horses, although age and performance level may indicate more frequent exams.

A dental exam takes approximately 10 to 30 minutes and assesses internal and external structures. It requires sedation and a full-mouth speculum for safety.

The cost of a basic dental exam depends on your vet and location but ranges from $35-$100. Some vets don’t charge for the exam, but instead roll the cost into any procedures needed to correct abnormalities.

It’s much easier to invest in an exam to treat and resolve issues by finding them early on. This will reduce your vet costs in the long run.

As an important note, the AAEP recommends that only licensed vets do dental exams and procedures for safety reasons. Equine veterinarians are trained in anatomy, sedation and dental procedures in vet school, some also receive more advanced training beyond vet school.

If you do use a lay dentist (one without a veterinary degree), Hall recommends at the very least having a vet present. While some lay dentists are skilled and do a good job, they should maintain a close partnership with a veterinarian in case a difficult situation arises.

Dental Health Year-Round

It’s ideal to spread out your horse’s feedings for many reasons, such as lowering his stress level and keeping his gut moving. Grazing (in a pasture or on hay) all day as nature intended also helps with proper chewing and tooth wear, thus preserving equine dental health.

If your horse is experiencing any unusual behavior problems, such as those mentioned above, consider having your veterinarian out for a dental exam to see if tooth pain could be the root cause of the issue.

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Holly Caccamise has been with Horse Illustrated and Young Rider since 2007, and in August 2019, she took over as head editor. She’s been instrumental in the production of both magazines and helped Horse Illustrated win a 2018 American Horse Publications Media Award in the General Excellence Self-Supported Publication (circulation 15,000 and over) category. Before getting involved in the editorial side of print media, she worked as an award-winning ad copywriter for Thoroughbred Times magazine. Caccamise has her MS in Animal Science from the University of Kentucky, where she studied equine nutrition and exercise physiology, and her Bachelor’s from UCLA in Biology. Caccamise has also worked as a research assistant, horse camp counselor teaching riding and vaulting, and as a top-level show groom in the eventing world, where she continues to compete her horse, Artie, at the lower levels.

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