Tuesdays with Tony
I, being the hard working feline that I am, am often hand fed by my humans and do not often have to think about the use of my teeth. Your horse, however, requires roughage (hay, grass, other gross green things) in their diet which they generally need to use their teeth for. Today we are going to talk about equine dentistry and the effects it has on your horse’s well-being.
If you’re a reader of this blog, I know you care deeply for your equine friends. You have your veterinarian out on a regular basis, vaccinate for the things they recommend, and only deworm based on fecal egg counts as directed by your veterinarian. So, who’s floating your horse’s teeth?
If it’s not also your veterinarian, keep reading. Oh–and even if it is–you should still read the rest of my blog.
What Do We Do to Horse Teeth During a “Dental”
Horse teeth are designed to grow continuously throughout the horse’s life. As the horse chews, they wear down their teeth. When the mouth is balanced, the teeth wear down in a relatively even way. Once imbalances start though, they only get worse as the grinding action occurs every day. Horses can develop imbalances–things like malocclusions, sharp enamel points, and hooks–for a variety of reasons, and yes they do develop these things “in the wild” too. Some imbalances are relatively minor and don’t prevent the horse from eating, but some cause severe oral pain and make your herbivorous friend taste blood in their mouth.
So, when my docs go in there with their special tools, what they are doing is correcting those imbalances. My docs use tools called “power floats” which make the dentals quicker and put less strain on their overworked backs, but you may see your veterinarian use tools called “hand floats” which basically just look like metal rasps. And that is where the term “floating a horse’s teeth” comes from–just the name of the tool used! The floats are designed to be used in specific ways to safely grind down the high or sharp points on various surfaces of the teeth in order to bring things closer to being balanced. It is very possible to “over float” however, which is why a dental speculum and bright light are absolutely vital to the dental–and you can’t use those effectively without the magic word: sedation!
Sedation can only be used and administered by or under direct supervision of a veterinarian. There are lay people who claim to float horse teeth out there who use sedation but this cat knows they went under the table to get it–and that spot is reserved for me. So, sedation is used by my docs to make the horses a bit more calm and amenable to the whole process. It is a very light sedation that keeps them standing and aware, but also allows the doctor and technician to be safe while the speculum goes into the mouth and holds it open for the dental exam.
The dental exam is one of the most vital parts of the entire procedure and is definitely not being performed by lay people claiming to be able to float teeth. The dental exam involves both visual and tactile assessment of every tooth in the horse’s mouth. The docs look for missing teeth, sharp points, oral ulcerations, tumors, extra teeth, you name it they want to find and document it. Just like doing a physical exam for vaccines helps your veterinarian know what is normal for your horse so they can more easily spot abnormal, doing dental exams every year allows them to track progression of any imbalances or abnormalities your particular horse has.
How Often Should Dentals Happen?
For most horses, my docs recommend a dental exam and float once per year. Exams should start within the first few years of life and often there are already mild sharp points that my docs take down quickly with their power float. Starting dentals early helps find any issues your horse was born with so they can be managed over time. It also helps young horses get used to the sedation of the speculum and the noise of the float in their mouth, which will make them better patients for the next visit.
Regular dental work by a veterinarian can help prevent pain and discomfort, improve chewing ability so they get more out of each piece of food, and can even improve behavior and comfort while working. Sometimes my docs will recommend twice yearly dental work for young horses with pre-set imbalances so we can set them up for success in later life, and very often my docs will recommend twice yearly dental care for older horses who teeth are starting to “expire.”
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go Tim Burton on you, by expire I just mean teeth that are so worn down they are not very effective at grinding anymore. If a horse lives long enough, this will happen, and it takes a skilled hand to manage the teeth around that one, especially the one directly across the mouth from it. Remember how I said at the beginning that the teeth are designed to grow for the entire life? Well, if one expires, the one opposite on it on the upper or lower jaw will often keep growing, and growing, and growing…
For horses that don’t get regular veterinary dental care, this leads to the sensation of having a giant pillar in their mouth that they can’t quite chew around, and will often make them less likely to eat. If my docs meet an older horse who isn’t keeping weight on or isn’t eating well, one of their first steps will be a dental exam and likely floating the teeth!
Take Home Points
What this cat wants you to know is this: all of your horses should have dental care performed with sedation by their veterinarian at least once per year.
It doesn’t matter what a lay person tells you about how “skilled” or “specialized” they are in equine dentistry, they are not qualified to appropriately manage your horse’s teeth.
A horse’s teeth are vital to their digestion of nutrients. Most horses eat hay or grass as the majority of their diet. This is known as roughage because the plant fibers need to be broken down by the grinding action of the teeth. This is why older horses that have expired teeth should switch to a complete or “senior” feed. Senior feeds have the roughage component in them already ground down, essentially doing the work of the teeth prior to entering the horse’s mouth!
Well, I hope that gives you some perspective on equine dentistry. If you have any follow up questions my docs are always happy to answer, just give the clinic a call or talk to them at your horse’s next wellness appointment!
Until next week,
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Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!