Q: I have a 12-year-old Quarter Horse mare. She is very healthy but her teeth appear dirty. I have my three dogs’ teeth cleaned because their vet said it’s important to their health. I’ve asked my vet about cleaning my horse’s teeth, but he says it isn’t done. Why don’t horses need their teeth cleaned?
First let’s consider what you’re looking at when you notice the brown staining on the incisors (front teeth) in your horse’s mouth. Unlike humans and dogs, whose teeth are covered with shiny white enamel, a horse has an outer layer of cementum. Cementum is a porous, yellowish material that readily absorbs pigment from feed materials. Although the color is different from that of other species, it is a normal characteristic and not detrimental to the health of the equine tooth.
The molars and premolars of the horse erupt into the oral cavity in tight rows that function as a unit to grind forage. Because these teeth don’t typically have spaces between them (like a dog’s do, for example), healthy, well-maintained horse teeth don’t trap feed materials and promote decay like other species’ can. However, it should be noted that as horses age they can develop spaces (termed “diastemata”) where grass and other feed materials can accumulate and lead to periodontal disease. Just as in humans and dogs, an unhealthy mouth and teeth can have many negative effects on the animal’s overall systemic health.
The horse’s gastrointestinal system is designed to accommodate an herbivore’s diet and grazing lifestyle. Constant production of alkaline saliva neutralizes acids from feed material and oral bacteria, reducing the likelihood of erosion and cavities. For this reason, horses permitted to graze extensively on high-forage, low-concentrate diets tend to have the healthiest teeth. Since a horse’s teeth continuously erupt at approximately the same rate that they are worn down, there is ongoing turnover of tooth in the equine mouth.
That said, some horses do tend to accumulate tartar along the gum line, most often on the canine and incisor teeth. It appears that genetics and diet have the most significant influence on how much each individual horse will develop. Just as with people or dogs, tartar buildup can result in periodontal disease and even infection that spreads to the tooth root, which may lead to loose, painful, diseased teeth and may even necessitate extraction. Your veterinarian may elect to scale off this tartar accumulation to protect the overall health of the teeth and gums.
Regular preventive care is the best way to monitor the health of your horse’s teeth. Even if little to no equilibration (floating) is necessary, ask your veterinarian to conduct a thorough oral examination once yearly to identify and treat any abnormalities before they become more significant problems.
Erika Wierman, DVM, of Bluegrass Equine Dentistry makes client education a priority in her central Kentucky practice. Visit her website for more information: www.bluegrassequinedentistry.com
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!