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Seeing the dentist — how often?

Carol Shwetz

DVM

I strongly encourage owners to be present when dentistry is being performed on their horses.

The practice of equine dentistry has grown tremendously in the last 10 years. This growth brings forth new information to revisit old questions. One such question is “How often does a horse need dentistry?”

Although every horse benefits from a dental evaluation, not every horse will require dental work. When required, the quality of the dental work is of greater value than its frequency. Frequency is only one aspect of quality dental care.

“Floating,” or the removal of sharp points from the horse’s back teeth, is just the tip of the iceberg when it come to complete dental care. Complete dental care addresses the whole horse. Poor tooth alignment and irregular chewing patterns can cause severe pain, digestive difficulties, colic, behaviour and performance problems. These conditions can also cause neck stiffness and contribute to lameness.

I strongly encourage owners to be present when dentistry is being performed on their horse. The more familiar an owner is with a horse’s dental picture, the more that owner is able to ascertain the quality of dentistry that will serve the best interest of the horse.

A horse’s mouth is an ever-changing place. Their teeth are continually erupting from the gumline. Therefore, changes made in mouth through dental procedures are really a setup for the horse to grow into. This basic concept is similar to that of hoof care, where the changes made during the hoof trim act as a guide for hoof wall growth. The big difference between hoof care and tooth care, though, is that hoof growth is infinite. The coronary band continually produces hoof wall. On the other hand, tooth growth is limited. Overzealous removal of tooth surface during a dentistry can use up the tooth, prematurely shortening the productive life of the tooth. Judicious dentistry removes just enough tooth to set up balance and address corrections. It recognizes that tooth amount is precious and finite.

Once changes are made and balance established, the horse often maintains that balance with very little upkeep. In general, desirable tooth wear in horses is supported when horses live out on pasture and eat grasses. The longer the fibre in the feed, the wider the circular grinding motion on the surface of the teeth, hence fewer undesirable edges formed on the teeth.

Since the changes in a young horse’s mouth set the foundation for a lifetime of dental patterns, a key window or “best time” for dental evaluation occurs in a horse’s fourth year. Uneven shedding of baby teeth or caps in a young horse between the ages of 2 1/2 and four years of age can set the stage for waves, tall teeth, and general imbalance in the mouth.

Remember that horse teeth grow continually, so these horses can be in big dental trouble when they are 15 years old. Corrections and attention to imbalances during these early years can be life-changing for the horse.

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