Spotlight on Equine Dental Problems

Dental issues in our equines can often be a hidden problem as horses, ponies and donkeys can cope with a surprising amount of dental discomfort before showing any obvious signs. 

The more obvious signs of dental problems that you may notice include quidding (dropping balls of partially chewed food), excess salivation and weight loss. 

The horse may pouch food in its cheeks to protect the sensitive soft tissue or there may be swellings around the face and jaw. Performance issues can also indicate that they are uncomfortable in their mouths, such as reluctance to accept the bit.

Other, less obvious signs of dental discomfort include taking longer to eat or choosing to always chew on one side. This uneven chewing can also lead to muscle changes as one side is used less, seen as an asymmetrical face.

Our horses, ponies and donkeys require routine dental examinations every six to 12 months to maintain a healthy, balanced mouth and to reduce any sharp points.

But why do equine teeth get sharp?

Equine teeth continually grow, and the height of the tooth is reduced due to wear from the opposing tooth. The horse’s upper jaw is 20 to 25 per cent wider than the lower jaw and the upper teeth are also wider than the lower teeth.

This creates a mismatch of the grinding surface creating sharp points on the tooth surfaces next to the cheeks on the upper jaw and the tongue on the lower jaw. As we put bridles and headcollars on our horses, this pushes the cheeks and tongue against the sharp points causing discomfort.

Regular dental examination and treatment helps to maintain a balanced, comfortable and functional mouth.

Dental work should only be performed by someone with the necessary qualifications and we recommend that it is done by a BAEDT registered equine dental technician or by a veterinary surgeon.

It is advised that up to the age of five years, dental examinations are done every six months as this is the period where the adult teeth are erupting.

Horse receiving dental treatment

They may not need any treatment at this stage but examination can help to pick up any issues early. 

Between five and 15 years old, providing there are no dental issues, examination can be done yearly, going back to six monthly examinations from 15 years and above as the teeth begin to suffer age related changes. 

Those horses that have dental issues, such as missing teeth, diastema (abnormal gaps between teeth) or mouth imbalances, may require dental examination every six months or even more frequently throughout their lifetime to maintain a comfortable mouth.

Donkeys require routine dentistry just as often as horses. It is common that donkeys will not have had dental examinations from an early age and after a period of three to five years without regular, adequate dental treatment the oral health will rapidly decline. 

Sedation is not just for the naughty horse! Sedation allows for a thorough examination of all parts of the mouth and makes it a safer and less stressful experience for the horse, the owner holding the horse and the person performing the dental exam. 

If the horse has an uncomfortable mouth then sometimes even just having the tools in their mouth can be uncomfortable and sedation allows for it to be a more relaxing experience for them. 

Some dental conditions require more than just routine examination and rasping. More advanced work and imaging of the teeth is done under standing sedation with the use of nerve blocks. This allows the horse to be kept calm, comfortable and still to allow the procedure to be performed safely.