Taking good care or your teeth is immensely important if you would like to keep them. Horses have many of the very same issues involving plaque, cracked and abscessed teeth as well as gingivitis and halitosis or foul-smelling breath. A bad tooth creates a very characteristic odor in both humans and horses and is often the first sign of a dental problem. A dental exam by your veterinarian should be performed at minimum once per year and floating annually or bi-annually is part of a good horse health-care schedule.
Cavities develop when high sugar diets feed bacteria that in turn create a lower pH in the mouth. This lower pH or higher acid content weakens the mineral structure of the tooth and this is essentially the tooth breaking down. If the cavity gets “too deep” it could penetrate into the pulp cavity. This is the chamber where all the nerves and blood vessels reside and once the pulp cavity is “contaminated” there is no going back. The next step would be a root canal. We don’t see the same type of disease in horses but some horses do have weak teeth and often a trauma, such as biting down on a piece of gravel, can expose the pulp cavity to infection. Root canals can be done on horses however the issues are often not identified early enough to allow for this type of treatment. Most often the issue progresses until the tooth become fragile and fractures or develops a deep infection in the bone.
Horses with a missing tooth can develop issues with the tooth that is directly above or below the missing tooth. Because the opposite tooth has nothing to grind against, it may become too long or wear unevenly. This can result in long spikes of tooth that disrupt normal chewing. When teeth are missing, some horses will begin quidding. Quidding occurs when hay becomes trapped in the space created by a missing tooth. The hays “balls up” and eventually the partially chewed mass, the quid is spit out. Owners will notice little “quids” of hay scattered in the stall. This can also cause a horse to develop swellings in the cheek area that look similar to the stuffed cheeks of a gerbil. In some cases this happens because the tooth is painful and they simply try not to touch the area with their tongue and that allows feed to “pack” in that area.
Calcium Build Up
Over time, plaque deposits can build up on a horse’s tooth. In severe cases, the plaque may build up to the point that it gives the appearance of a deformed tooth. This may keep your horse from being able to grind its food properly and extract all the necessary nutrients.
Equine Periodontal (Gum) Disease
Periodontal disease affects horses much the same way it does humans. The disease usually starts out with the gums becoming red and swollen but is generally not painful. As the disease progresses, the gums will begin to pull away from the tooth, leaving gaps between the gum and tooth. These gaps allow bacteria to enter the horse’s system and adversely affect organs like the liver and kidneys. Gum disease can contribute to loosened teeth, tooth loss and hard-to-treat infections in the bone.
Malformations of the Horse Mouth
Horses with overbites (parrot mouth) or under-bits (monkey mouth) may need to be seen by the vet more regularly. Because the upper and lower teeth don’t grind against each other properly, problems can develop. A dental check-up and a floating may need to be scheduled every 6th months in lieu of yearly.
Today, equine dentistry is so much more than just having your horse’s teeth floated. Floating your horses teeth once a year or at minimum having them examined once a year will go a long way in preventing some of these serious issues or at least identifying them early when treatment can be much more straight forward. Without routine equine dental care, (including yearly or bi-yearly teeth floating) your horse can develop dental problems. If left undiagnosed, these equine dental problems can lead to an array of other health issues. They can also result in a horse with “bad” behavior.
We recommend familiarizing yourself with the article in our Horse Health Library: “Signs Your Horse May Need Their Teeth Floated.”