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Dental Care in Horses

By: Dr. Philip Johnson

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The most common sign of "normal" dental attrition is the tendency of old horses to become thin. In younger horses, the presence of sharp enamel edges may interfere with the normal maintenance of oral hygiene and cause food retention and gingivitis.

Symptoms of excessive sharp enamel edges include:

  • Tendency of the horse to drop food when eating (known as "quidding")
  • Malodorous oral cavity
  • Tendency to lose weight
  • Head shaking when being ridden
  • Chomping (difficulty) with the bit

    Certainly, there are numerous other and unrelated causes for signs associated with weight loss and difficulties when being ridden. Of note, some individual horses develop the habit of "grinding" their cheek teeth ("bruxism"); although this behavior may be a sign of internal disease (it is often just a habit), it is not a sign of dental problems.

    In advanced cases of dental disease, teeth may be broken (fractured) and/or infected (peri-apical abscess). In these cases, signs of dental pain may be more prominent. Infection of a tooth may lead to abscess formation, swelling, and purulent drainage from the tissue between the tooth root and the overlying skin. The jaw bone may be enlarged at the point of the affected tooth root. For some of the "upper" cheek teeth, infection and/or fracture leads to infection of the maxillary sinus and a foul-smelling unilateral nasal discharge.

    If a substantial tooth problem has been present for a sufficient length of time, it will be apparent that the rate of attrition of the cheek teeth (based on inspection of the oral cavity) may be uneven. Irregular attrition causes marked deviation in the grinding plane, often known as a "step mouth" or a "wave mouth."


    The most important component of dental disease diagnosis is a thorough examination of the horse's mouth, including careful palpation of each of the teeth. Prior to a thorough oral/dental examination, it is often necessary to provide tranquilization.

    In the last few years, there has been a widespread increase in the level of interest in equine dentistry. Extensive equipment is now available to assist the veterinarian during an oral examination. Based on current standards, and using one of several methods, it is important that the whole oral cavity and each of the cheek teeth be scrutinized very carefully. Good record keeping is also very important. In some cases, radiography of the teeth (and tooth roots) may be useful.

    Preventative Care

    Routine Examinations

    It is widely recommended that each horse be subjected to a routine health maintenance examination once yearly. During such examinations, both the oral cavity and the teeth should be examined (with sedation if needed). For those horses with recognized problems (narrow jaws or previous dental problems), it may be appropriate that oral/dental examinations be undertaken with greater frequency as dictated by the needs of the individual. A complete oral/dental examination should be an essential part of any pre-purchase examination.


    The frequency with which the cheek teeth are rasped (floated) must be determined for each individual horse. It is currently fashionable to undertake dental rasping on a very frequent basis, regardless of individual need. As a rule, most horses probably do not require extensive rasping more frequently than once yearly – many horses maintain excellent oral hygiene by having their cheek teeth rasped every two to three years. It should be noted that it is regular examinations and not regular rasping that precludes the development of severe dental disorders. It is easier to correct a problem in the early stage before it has had time to cause unbalanced dental attrition.

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