Equine medicine has come a long way with increasingly better diagnostics, treatment options, and a better overall understanding of the equine patient. The practice of equine veterinary medicine is not focused solely on treatment of disease, but also the prevention of disease and illness.
Equine dentistry is one area of preventative medicine which has shown great strides in advancement over the past decade. Increased imaging techniques, advanced equipment, and increased knowledge through research have help improve the lives of horses throughout the world. Board certification in veterinary dentistry has allowed veterinarians the opportunity to further develop their skills, techniques, and understanding of equine dental surgery. In Wisconsin, we are fortunate to have three boarded Veterinary Dentists to which we can refer complicated dental cases for advanced treatment options.
At Great Lakes Equine, we recommend a sedated oral examination at least once per year. Even though your horse may be acting and eating normally, there still may be dental pathology present which can be corrected before clinical signs of disease or illness become apparent. Visual and manual assessment of the temporal mandibular joint (TMJ), facial symmetry, mandible, and muscles of mastication are all assessed prior to examination of the oral cavity. Following sedation, an oral speculum would be placed to allow for appropriate visualization of the mouth. Dental mirrors are then used to visualize all the cheek teeth, pulp cavities, and gingiva looking for fractures, periodontal pockets, gingival erosion, malalignment, etc. If pathology is noted then further exploration with depth probes and picks would help further provide information so appropriate diagnostics and treatments can be performed. Advanced imagining with an oral scope and oral/head radiographs may be warranted in certain situations. Once all the information is gathered, appropriate treatments can be given to help heal, correct, and prevent further damage to the patient’s mouth. In most instances where pathology is nonexistent or minimal, this evaluation can be as short as 2 minutes. Once the overall assessment of the mouth is complete then occlusal adjustment with the power float can be performed. Floating a horse’s teeth is not necessarily a complicated process, but more of an art form. Appropriate removal of the enamel points, as well as occlusal alignment, is essential in maintaining comfort and efficiency with chewing. Excessive grinding can lead to thermogenic tooth death, malalignment, and open pulp cavities.
In Wisconsin, it is law that Equine Dentistry is to be performed by a licensed veterinarian. If an owner chooses to have a lay floater remove the enamel points, it must be done under direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian. Lay floaters are not allowed to diagnose, treat, or perform dental surgery (pull teeth). These practices must only be performed by the veterinarian. This law is in place to protect the owner and horse and to make sure a veterinarian is present who can assess, react, and treat any complication which may arise during the floating process.
As with any medical procedure, complications can arise during an oral exam and occlusal adjustment. Reactions to sedation or inadvertent injection of the carotid artery can occur and can have serious, and sometimes fatal, outcomes. Mandibular fractures, crown fractures, or injury to other parts of the body (ie the horse hits it’s head) can all occur even in the best of situations. Although very rare, it is important that if a complication were to arise the appropriate medications and treatments be utilized immediately.
So why take the risk of performing an oral exam and float? The risks of not at least examining the horse’s mouth are far more common and can lead to discomfort, weight loss, poor performance, colic, choke, and even death. As a horse ages, their teeth continuously erupt. This is because with mastication (chewing) a horse will slowly grind away tooth. If the teeth did not continue to grow then eventually at a young age the horse would have no tooth left and would eventually die of malnutrition from the inability to eat efficiently. Unlike rodents, however, horses do only have a limited amount of reserve crown (unerupted tooth), and at an old age, they will eventually grind the last bit of tooth down to the gum line. This grinding and wearing of the teeth is how points and abnormal alignments develop. The horse’s lower jaw is more narrow than the upper jaw and with the side to side chewing pattern the lingual (tongue side) of the lower cheek teeth and buccal (cheek side) of the upper teeth do not become worn down. With the lack of wear on these specific portions of the tooth, sharp enamel points will develop which eventually lead to ulcerations of the cheek and tongue, ultimately leading to inefficiency in eating and malnutrition. Ramps and hooks can also develop with under bites and over bites again leading to discomfort and illness. Steps and waves are descriptions of inappropriate tooth eruption or growth due to the lack of, or increased wear of, the opposing cheek teeth.
As a veterinarian, we are trained to assess, treat, and adjust the dental arcade to allow for comfort and chewing efficiency which ultimately leads to an increase in our patient’s overall health and performance. If it has been a while since a dental examination was last performed on your horse by a veterinarian, don’t hesitate to set up an appointment or at least consult with your veterinarian before it is too late. At Great Lakes Equine, we are here to enhance health and performance for your horse.
A small bit of prevention can go a long way. Call 920-779-4444 to schedule your checkup.