Nobody particularly appreciates being told they’re ‘getting long in the tooth,’ but if you happen to be a horse, the implications go way beyond mere wounded pride. Because a horse’s teeth grow continuously throughout most of their life, they literally become longer with age. If the teeth don’t wear down properly, this can lead to painful and even life-threatening health problems.
Given these problems, you’re probably wondering what the benefits of this continual tooth growth could be. The answer is related to their diet; because horses are grazing animals by nature, the roughage they are designed to consume wears their teeth down as they chew. If these teeth weren’t continually being renewed from below, they would quickly be worn flat to the gums and would be no use for chewing.
However, our domesticated horses are often somewhat spoiled with lush, tender pastures, fine hay, and supplemental grain. This means less chewing is required and the teeth may grow faster than they’re worn down. As a result, our horses often need a helping hand in keeping their teeth in good shape.
Most horses need yearly dental exams and ‘floating,’ or smoothing of the overgrown portions of the teeth. Due to their anatomy and chewing patterns, horses tend to develop sharp, overgrown points on the outsides of their upper cheek teeth and the insides of their lower cheek teeth. These points can become extremely sharp, causing painful ulcers in the cheeks and tongue. Dental exams are also a great time to identify and treat loose, fractured, or infected teeth. Some horses have small, vestigial teeth commonly known as wolf teeth just in front of their main cheek teeth. These wolf teeth don’t contribute to chewing and often interfere with the bit and so most often are removed.
If you’ve ever had a toothache yourself, you can probably imagine the discomfort a horse may experience. Riders will often notice that a horse is becoming difficult to bridle, resistant to the bit, or just plain irritable when being ridden. Because dental disease can interfere with chewing, you may also notice that the horse is dropping its feed and losing weight. More severe cases can result in colic, choke, or sinus or bone infection.
The good news is that regular dental care by a veterinarian can prevent these problems. Sedation is used to help keep the horse still, manage any discomfort, and reduce stress. Then specialized dental tools are used to grind down overgrown teeth and smooth sharp points. Because senior horses over 20 years old are particularly prone to developing dental problems, it is especially important that they receive regular dental care to maximize their ability to chew and utilize feed.
As we face what is shaping up to be a long and snowy winter, ensuring that your horse’s teeth are in top working condition is one of the most important things you can do to help them stay healthy and happy as we anxiously await spring!
Dr. Amy Hayduk grew up in the Nass Valley of northwest BC and graduated from the Western College of Veterinary medicine as the 2014 “gold medalist” after completing a master’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Northern BC. She enjoys all aspects of mixed animal practice with special interests in small animal surgery and equine medicine. Dr. Hayduk enjoys traveling and has participated in international and third world vet medicine working with sun bears, elephants, and street dogs.