Hannes Tanzer MRCVS


    Recent research into equine dentistry has shown that as long as horses live on rough grass, hay and water only, tooth abnormalities are uncommon, and if corrected in time, tooth disease might never occur.

    Modern demands have created industrially produced feeds that are quick and easy to administer, well balanced and highly digestive. With horses' teeth being designed to grind down hard, dry fibrous feed over long periods of time, pelletted, chopped or silaged feeds, due to their softer structure can lead to tooth abnormalities. The most common tooth disease in the horse's mouth is caused by overgrowth of the cheek teeth, resulting in sores of various degrees on mucous membranes adjacent to the abnormal tooth. Subsequently animals are often unable to clear their mouth when feeding, "quidding" and cheek swelling may occur in badly affected horses. These horses might use just one side of their mouths for chewing, hold their heads in a tilted position when they are fed and gradually lose weight due to pain in the mouth.

    Weight loss can have other causes, but if dental disease is involved then tooth infection or decay can be present, smelly breath is a clear sign of dental disorder and the cause of it needs careful investigation.

    Tooth lesions are very painful and will cause bitting problems which can lead to abnormal head carriage or head shaking. Swellings on the horses head, nasal discharge from one nostril only or fistulating wounds in the area of a particular cheek tooth need immediate veterinary investigation.

    Looking into the horse's mouth from front we see the incisor teeth, six in each row. Disorders of these teeth are rare, fractures or malocclusion due to some degree of "overbite" are the most common problem. Overgrowth as a result of uneven wear should be rasped level at least on an annual basis. Incisor abnormalities can prevent normal mouth closure which can lead to difficulty chewing feed or taking up the bit. In the gap between the front teeth and the cheek teeth are the canines, if displaced or grossly enlarged they will interfere with the bit and can be safely rasped down to the gum line if necessary.

    Tartar can often accumulate on the canine teeth and should be removed regularly as it can cause soreness and pain to the mucous membrane of the gum.

    Wolf teeth do occur in 70% of horses, they are the first "baby" cheek teeth and most horses lose them between 2 and 5 years of age. If displaced, unerupted, pointed, undersized or fractured they can interfere with the bit, causing discomfort or pain so are best removed. On welfare grounds we consider it essential to sedate the horse and administer a pain killer before extraction of the wolf teeth. Pliers and screwdrivers are not suitable instruments, and attempted extraction without sedation/painkillers often results in fractured wolf teeth making matters worse. Wolf tooth extraction performed by an incompetent person can lead to the horse becoming head shy and I would not be surprised if the poor horse from that traumatic moment onwards "does not like men", as most equine dentists are of the male gender. I am sure that none of us would like to have a tooth removed from our mouths by a dentist who used "DIY" tools and no painkillers!

    Retained "baby cheek teeth" in horses between 2 and 5 years old can cause irritation and horses then start quidding, are uncomfortable with the bit and go off their food. These so called "caps" will have to be removed as retention can cause development of "eruption cysts" under the permanent cheek teeth. X-rays are often helpful in the presence of retained baby teeth as premature removal can cause problems of a different kind.

    A forward positioning of the upper cheek teeth in relation to its lower opponents is quite common and the result is a hook of considerable size on the first upper cheek tooth, unfortunately a similar over growth on the last lower cheek tooth is often undetected and can cause serious damage to the mucous membrane. Levelling this tooth is a rather involved procedure due to restricted space, especially in smaller breeds. Over growth of cheek teeth are commonly seen on horses on high concentrate diets that contain less abrasive components than complete grass or hay.

    Food stuck between the teeth followed by an infection can retard tooth growth which will contribute to the formation of what is called a "wave mouth". Once a bad tooth is removed, a "step mouth" will form, with the opposing tooth growing into the gap left by it's former opponent. This tooth might need levelling every 6 months and food stuck in this gap can add to gum disease.

    Summing up, we can say that every horse that is fed on a diet other than grass/hay alone will show some degree of dental abnormality often of little clinical significance and if corrected in time, tooth disease might never occur.

    A proper dental examination by a qualified person who has an interest in horse dentistry will reveal the true extent of abnormalities, it might take longer and cost slightly more than a quick "toothrub" but only a healthy mouth will allow your horse to feel at it's best and perform to its full potential. It is of vital importance that a horses teeth are checked at least on a yearly basis with particular attention paid to young horses before they are introduced to a bit and to older horses who eat slowly or are losing weight. Our surgery now offers a free of charge dental health check with every vaccination to help detect tooth abnormalities before they can develop into disease.

    To contact Hannes directly,
    Email hannestanzer@penmellyn.co.uk or telephone 01637 860267.


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