The August issue of Contour magazine focused on veterinary dentistry, the impact animals can have on our lives and the importance of oral health in all animals — big and small. Before this month, I had never heard of equine dentistry — the practice of dentistry in horses — but the field is vast and quickly growing.
Equine dentistry includes the study, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of a variety of diseases and disorders within a horse. Historically, evaluating a horse’s dentition was an important method in gauging its age. This sometimes led to fraud, though, as horse owners would alter the shape and size of the dentition to make their horse appear younger when being traded or sold.
Veterinarians, particularly those trained in large animal veterinary medicine, receive training and learn how to take care of a horse’s oral health because their teeth were not built to last beyond their twenties and, these days, horses are living well into their thirties. Equine veterinarians and dentists work to prevent the premature breakdown of a horse’s dentition so they can live as comfortably and healthy as possible.
According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), horses should receive their first comprehensive oral evaluation before the age of 2 1/2. Major problems that are seen later in a horse’s life, such as periodontal disease (which also leads to tooth loss), malocclusion, difficulty eating and unexplained weight-loss can be prevented by an equine dentist early on. Prevention is key, just like it is in humans.
Most mature horses have 36 to 44 teeth, including 12 premolars and 12 molars. Horses are designed to eat up to 18 hours a day, so these teeth have long roots and grow throughout their life because, over time, their teeth are worn down while enjoying grass, hay, apples and perhaps chewing on fences and stall doors. Once their teeth are naturally worn down, they are not replaced. The biomechanics of mastication play a huge role into the way a horse’s teeth are worn, so it is the job of the veterinarian or equine dentist to monitor a horse throughout its lifetime to make sure that any painful sharpness or uncomfortable unevenness in the teeth is treated.
One of the most common dental problems seen by equine dentists and veterinarians are cheek teeth dental disorders, which cause overgrowths and malocclusions of an opposing or adjacent tooth. Minor discomfort or the inability of to eat properly due to severe pain can result, and teeth with sharp enamel points, retained deciduous caps, hooks, ramps, wave mouth, shear mouth, step mouth and supernumerary teeth result. These conditions are easily treated by the dentist, but the best solution is prevention. If horses are seen early on in their lives and receive routine dental exams at least once a year until they are 5 years old and then twice a year until they are 15, according to the AAEP, they are much less likely to develop significant problems in their middle-aged and retirement years.
Just like it is important for us to attend our dental appointments twice a year, prevention and routine care are critical for optimal equine dental health.
~Callista Schulenburg, LECOM ’22, ASDA Electronic Editor