Equine teeth are open-rooted, which means that they grow continuously and rely on chewing to keep them ground down to the correct length. In a perfect world, the rate of wear would equal the rate of growth and the main teeth, the molars, would wear evenly to provide the ideal chewing surface. However, the top set of molars is wider than the lower set, and horses chew in a circular motion, which means that over time, if the horse has an uneven bite, sharp spurs can develop. Floating is the process whereby the spurs or spikes are “floated” or rasped down with a dental file designed for use in horses. Knowing when to float your horse’s teeth is very important in order to prevent oral pain and to assure your horse is healthy overall.
EditEvaluating Primary Signs
- Determine if your horse has difficulty eating. Dental spurs in your horse’s mouth may dig into the buccal (cheek) or lingual (tongue) surface and cause pain. This indicates that your horse needs its teeth floated.
- The horse may be hesitant to eat or eat less than it usually eats.
- The horse may take a long time to eat, and throw its head as it eats.
- The horse may also exhibit other signs that it is not eating enough, such as losing weight.
- Spot sloppy eating to identify oral pain. Your horse may become an untidy eater, slobbering and dropping food out of its mouth. For example, determine if your horse has scattered food all over the stable floor.
- Some horses will hold their head to one side as they chew, leading to heavy drooling. See if your horse has a constantly wet chin, from dribbling. They dribble because swallowing involves movement of the tongue, which can be painful due to the spurs. Instead of swallowing, they would rather drool.
- Sometimes the saliva is blood stained because of the damage to the mucous membrane lining the mouth.
- Look for signs of choking. Oral pain makes the horse less willing to chew, and makes it more likely to swallow food that is incompletely broken down and only partially mixed with saliva. These dry balls of food can get stuck in the esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth to the stomach) and cause your horse to choke. This creates a visible lump in the left side of the neck, in a line from the esophagus, which travels from the corner of the jawbone to the point of the shoulder.
- This is not the immediate emergency that choking in humans is. This does not block the trachea, so the horse can still breath. However, the food blockage will build up over time, causing the horse to cough up fluid and food, in addition to causing discomfort and pain.
- If the esophagus is blocked with a ball of hay, the saliva has nowhere to go when the horse swallows and so the horse tends to drool heavily.
- Notice if your horse has puffy cheeks from packing balls of grass or hay. When a horse works out a way to pack balls of hay or grass between the cheek and teeth, to act as a pad or barrier, it is called quidding. This cushions the cheek lining as they chew and reduces discomfort.
- This can been seen if your horse has “hamster” or puffy cheeks.
- Your horse will also spit these balls out onto the stable floor occasionally, which is a sign that its teeth need floating.
- See if your horse avoids a bit, the piece of horse tack that goes in the mouth. A horse with a sore mouth is likely to be uncomfortable with a bit in her mouth. This is because when the bit comes in contact with the sore in its mouth, the horse tries to protect it by shifting the bit to a different place where it is less painful. Thus the horse becomes preoccupied with avoiding the bit and either throws its head around, or flexes its neck to try to drop the bit out.
- This can transform a usually placid and well-behaved animal, into one who tosses its head around when ridden, or tries to avoid the bit by over-bending its neck.
EditAssessing Secondary Signs
- Weigh your horse. A horse in need of dental attention may lose weight. This is because the horse will learn to selectively eat foods that require less chewing. Your horse may avoid coarse hay and hard grains, and prefer to eat gruel or soft grass.
- Another reason the horse may lose weight is that she is not grinding the food thoroughly. Grinding breaks down cell walls and fiber making it easier to for the gut to digest the food and get maximum nutritional value.
- Pay attention if your horse looks very thin or starved. If your horse’s mouth is particularly painful, then it may only eat the bare minimum, or even starve itself rather than experience discomfort.
- The horse may also be more lethargic than usual, due to a lack of food energy.
- Keep an eye out for signs of indigestion and colic. Balls of under-chewed food can make it to the stomach, but lodge in the gut and cause indigestion or colic. The symptoms of this include abdominal discomfort, which manifests as restlessness, constant turning, and looking at their flank, kicking at their belly, rapid shallow breathing, general agitation, wide-staring eyes, and flared nostrils.
- Look for whole pieces of food in your horse’s droppings. Because the dental spurs cause pain and result in less thorough chewing, your horse will swallow more full pieces of food. This poorly chewed food includes larger pieces of hay, and complete pieces of grain, which the gut is unable to fully breakdown and digest. Therefore, the horse’s dung will contain whole pieces of cereal or grain, and pieces of undigested hay.
- Smell your horse’s breath to see if is worse than usual. If your horse has dental spurs, food is more likely to become trapped in the mouth. This food then becomes rancid and starts to smell.
- Also, the sores or ulcers in the mouth can become infected and result in bad breath (halitosis).
EditExamining the Teeth Directly
- Gag the horse to make sure its mouth stays open during examination. Direct examination of the teeth involves putting a special gag into the horse’s mouth so that the mouth is held in a semi-open position. This prevents the horse form chewing the speculum when it is introduced, and allows all planes of the teeth to be inspected.
- Examine the problem teeth with a speculum to confirm the diagnosis. The problem teeth are the molars, or grinding teeth, which are situated at the back of the mouth. These are too far back to see without the aid of a special oral speculum. This is not painful and most horses tolerate this very well.
- The oral speculum is a torch-like instrument with a flat, rounded edged blade that can be slid into the mouth for the purposes of examining the teeth.
- A vet or equine dental technician has access to such a speculum.
- If the horse is liable to toss its head around then it may be wise to put a halter on and tie the lead rope with her head in a slightly elevated position, in order to restrict her movement and allow better inspection of the mouth.
- Inspect your horse’s mouth regularly to keep an eye on symptoms. Provided you do not see any signs of oral discomfort, a once per year inspection for horses between 5-20 years of age is fine. If your horse is under the care of a veterinarian, have him or her assess your horse’s teeth.
- Under 5 years old the horse is still growing, and a more frequent checkups are needed to make sure that teeth have come away cleanly and the dental arches are lined up.
- Likewise, after 20 years of age the horse is more likely to start getting dental complications, such as a cracked crowns or a tooth root infection, so twice per year dental checks are appropriate.
EditSources and Citations
- Principles of Equine Dentistry. David Klugh. CRC Press. 1st edition
- Equine Dentisty. Easley, Dixon & Schumacher. Saunders Press. 3rd edition
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