Ask the Expert: Healthy Horse Teeth

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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?

Grazing Horse

A: We know how important it is that we brush our own teeth daily, and it is similarly important that we routinely care for the teeth of our carnivore companions (dogs and cats). So why is it that you will hear your veterinarian talk about floating your horse’s teeth but cleaning them is never mentioned? The answer to your question lies in the differences between the teeth of a horse and those of other species.

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.

Liked this article? Here are others on equine dental care:
Avoiding Equine Dental Problems
Dental Anomalies in Horses

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!

3 COMMENTS

  1. I have to disagree. My vet (The University of Findlay Equine) recommended getting them done every year. He speaks about it extensively. We even talked about having a comparison study for horses that get care and those that don’t and compare their performances. Especially horses that eat a lot of grain as they tend to need floated more often. Two i ride get floated every year wether they need it or not for preventative. My 26 year old gets done every 2 years because his jaw is a little off for chewing and they wear odd. I have purchased a horse that had never had his teeth done in the 10 years of his life and he was nasty. Very aggressive. Faught the bit incesently. His teeth were so sharp the inside of his mouth was getting sliced and caused so much pain. After a very careful floating he became the nicest, calmest teddybear and willing to ride all day and collection was amazing. I whole heartedly believe in regularly floating. My dogs only get done once about every 5 years or so. If needed. Per my vet. Never had teeth problems.

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