Equine Dental Health

Regular oral examinations are just as important for your horse as for the dogs, cats and humans in your life. Equine teeth, unlike carnivorous or omnivorous animals, continuously erupt from the sinus cavities of the skull throughout the life of the horse. Because the upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw, the teeth can misalign so that sharp points begin to accumulate on the inside edges of the inner cheek teeth (or molars) and the outside edges of the upper cheek teeth. Sharp hooks can also form on the front of the first cheek tooth and the back of the last cheek tooth. Oral examinations allow for the identification and treatment of dental problems, and to perform routine dental preventative maintenance.
Some, but not all, horses will show signs of poor dental health. The AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) has published an excellent list of indicators of potential dental disease.

  • Loss of feed from mouth while eating, difficulty with chewing, or excessive salivation.
  • Loss of body condition.
  • Large or undigested feed particles (long stems or whole grain) in manure.
  • Head tilting or tossing, bit chewing, tongue lolling, fighting the bit or resisting bridling.
  • Poor performance, such as lugging on the bridle, failing to turn or stop, even bucking.
  • Foul odor from mouth or nostrils, or traces of blood from the mouth.
  • Nasal discharge or swelling of the face, jaw or mouth tissues.

It is imperative to address these concerns immediately, as a delay may cause significant duress for your horse by increasing the difficulty of remedying the condition, or in severe instances, rendering complete inability to reverse the condition.  At least once to twice yearly oral examinations are critical because there are many horses who will not display signs of dental illness as they have either adapted to the discomfort, or are simply too stoic.
The sharp points must be ground down with a file. Although some veterinarians still use hand tools, most now utilize power floats to minimize the amount of time necessary to complete the task. This is less traumatic for the horse, and because of the guards on the equipment, generally much safer. In the past, floating by hand was usually performed without sedation. It is debatable how well the teeth are able to be examined and filed without sedation. With sedatives, a horse’s entire oral cavity including each surface of each tooth is able to be examined and addressed. The points can then be removed which allows the horse to be more comfortable with improved jaw alignment.
A current “hot” topic in equine dentistry is the appearance within the equine health field of equine dentists. These are individuals who are not veterinarians but who have been educated to perform basic dental procedures, such as floating (the filing of the points and hooks.)  Consider the following brief article written (and reproduced with permission from the Veterinary Information Network) by Dr. Bob Judd, a veterinarian with the Texas Farm Bureau.
Finding the right person to perform dental care for your horse can be confusing for some owners.  However, we want to remind everyone that your equine veterinarian has had 4 years of training; in the first year alone that training includes normal muscle, nerve, and bone formation of the mouth, dental structure and function, and the effect of the teeth and oral cavity function on digestion and absorption of nutrients.  The second year includes disease processes that involve all body systems including the mouth and teeth. Also, a full year is spent on physiology and pharmacology of drugs, and this is really important since drugs are mandatory to perform complete equine dentistry.  Performing these procedures on a horse without drugs is painful for the horse and dangerous for the horse and people performing the procedures.  Would you allow your human dentist to inject drugs in your mouth or give you a sedative if you knew they had no formal training in the use and potential side effects of these medications?  Well, that is what non veterinary dentists are doing at this time.  The third year of vet school gives students hands on exposure to medical and surgical techniques that also includes procedures on the oral cavity.  The fourth year of school is clinical training and allows students to observe and actually perform the procedures including dental procedures on horses.
Equine dentists in Arizona are not currently permitted to use tranquilizers or anesthetic medications, as these are regulated and may only be legally used by licensed veterinarians. Also, as of the time of the writing of this article, legislation is pending in Arizona to disallow the practice of non-veterinarian equine dentistry.  Please note that the legality of equine dentists and what they are allowed to do varies wildly from state to state.  Also, horse owners should be aware that certification in one state does not generally directly transfer to another state.
The current statute in Arizona (per the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association) reads as follows:
To practice equine dentistry in the state of Arizona, the practitioner must be certified by the International Association of Equine Dentistry or the Academy of Equine Dentistry and be under the general or direct supervision of an Arizona licensed veterinarian.
The equine practitioner may provide to the Board, proof of certification and a written statement signed by the supervising Arizona licensed veterinarian.  Both the supervising veterinarian and the certified equine dental practitioner maintain dental charts for procedures performed.
Your veterinarian can help you determine the level of dental care necessary for your horse; however, an examination is always the first step!
Robin Paterson, D.V.M.
Cerbat Cliffs Animal Hospital
4110 Stockton Hill Road
Kingman, AZ 86401