Equine dentistry can be one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of veterinary medicine. These days many veterinarians have special training in dentistry and several have devoted their practice exclusively to the subject. As an associate at McKee-Pownall Equine Services I perform a variety of services on a daily basis but dentistry has always been area of special interest to me. You never know what you are going to find when you look into a horse’s mouth…and it’s a great upper body workout!
All horses, large and small, benefit from regular dental care. Their adult teeth erupt continuously over their lifetime and are ground down through the action of chewing. Due to the conformation of their jaws they form sharp enamel points on the cheek side of the upper cheek teeth and the tongue side of the lower cheek teeth. Left as is, these sharp points can cut into the cheeks and tongue causing painful sores that bother the horse when it is chewing or wearing a bridle. Sharp enamel points are a normal finding that must be maintained in all horses. In addition to that, many horses have actual dental problems and can suffer much more serious consequences without dental care. Every horse, no matter the size, should have a full dental exam once a year. A proper exam includes sedation and a full mouth speculum. The speculum allows the veterinarian to visualize the entire mouth, feel problem areas and use mirrors or other tools to complete a thorough exam. The sedation ensures that the horse is cooperative, relaxes their jaw for speculum placement and helps alleviate fear and nervousness.
With my interest and experience in the Miniature Horse industry I am surprised at how few of them I see for dental care. Miniature Horses present a number of challenges to the dental practitioner with their cramped working space and special set of problems. Though often overlooked, Minis usually have a greater need for good oral care than their large counterparts. Efforts by breeders to produce horses with smaller, more refined heads has led to disproportionately large teeth compared to skull size. For this reason Minis are prone to tooth overcrowding which predisposes them to problems with occlusion and eruption. Tooth root abscesses, eruption bumps, tooth impactions and sinusitis are all more common in Miniatures. Early diagnosis of these problems can prevent serious and permanent damage. Also, in a breed where parrot and monkey mouths are a problem it is important to check the whole mouth frequently in youngsters. In some cases cheek teeth malocclusions can create a false “off bite”.
All horses deserve a healthy, comfortable mouth. For most, this means a thorough dental exam and float once a year. For horses with problems your vet may have to see them more often. When it comes to equine dentistry it is much easier to prevent a problem than correct one. Whether your Mini is a competition horse or a backyard pet, dental care needs to be part of their annual maintenance. Diligence now can prevent a lot of discomfort, expense and heartache long term.
Michelle Courtemanche DVM