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Spotting the signs of equine dental problems

Although your horse might be vocal about a lot of things, that doesn’t always mean they’ll fill you in on when there’s a problem with their teeth. The early signs of dental issues in horses are often very subtle and may not show up until the problem has been developing for some time. So, what are the signs you should be looking out for? And how can you prevent your horse from getting down in the mouth with teeth problems in the first place? Time to brush up on your knowledge…

What causes dental problems in horses?

A horse’s teeth will continue to erupt – or break through – throughout its life. This is to make up for the normal wear caused by chowing down on grass and hay, day in day out. If their pearly whites aren’t worn down evenly, this is when problems can arise. What’s more, permanent teeth can also erupt in a slightly different place to where they’re meant to, due to overcrowding.

Other issues to be aware of are gum disease and tooth decay – complaints that certainly aren’t reserved for us humans. Gum (or ‘periodontal’) disease is caused by a build-up of different bacteria around the gum line and, if left untreated, can result in tooth loss. Inflammation of the gums can also happen as a result of food getting trapped between teeth, trauma to the mouth, fractured teeth or irregular wear.

Meanwhile, tooth decay can come about when there are changes in the pH of the horse’s mouth. Normally, a horse’s saliva slows down decay by neutralizing and maintaining the correct pH balance. But if a horse is stabled for long periods of time – and therefore grazing less and producing less saliva – this puts them at higher risk of tooth decay.

Horse's teeth being checked

How to spot the signs of dental problems in horses

Horses are prey animals and will naturally attempt to hide any signs of physical pain to prevent them from being a target to predators. Which doesn’t make your job any easier! Thankfully, your equine companion will unconsciously share signs of physical stress, so you can act fast and deal with any dental issues that crop up. Here’s what to look out for:

  • Fussing with the bit or head tossing. Horses with dental problems will find holding onto the bit uncomfortable, so firstly check whether it’s just discomfort caused solely by the bit that’s the issue.
  • Quidding. This happens when a horse spits out balls of hay it’s already chewed, as it’s not able to swallow it properly. The horse will lose conditioning as it’s simply not meeting its nutritional needs.
  • Weight loss. If your horse can’t chew properly due to teeth problems, it won’t be getting the nutritional goodness from its daily diet of grass or hay. What’s more, a horse that can’t chew properly is prone to colic and choke.
  • Slow eating. Is your horse no longer bolting down its food as soon as it’s placed in front of them? That may be a sign of broken teeth, infected gums or sore cheeks.
  • Spooking. If your horse is acting out of character by spooking and bolting more often than usual, it could be down to their gnashers causing them grief.
  • Spilling food. Horses with dental problems will often feel anxious about their food, and may show this through spilling or throwing it around. Holding food in their mouths and chewing will suddenly become difficult, and they could choke if it’s not ground up properly.
  • Halitosis. If there’s a definite whiff coming from your horse’s mouth or nose, gum infection could be the culprit.
  • Drooling. Horses often slobber when they have a bit in, but they may also be showing there’s something stuck in their mouths or have a problem with their teeth.
  • Sinus discharge. A small amount of clear or slightly milky fluid trickling from your horse’s nose is completely normal. However, if you notice something a bit yucky about it, it could indicate a dental infection.  
  • Head shy. Is your horse reluctant to let you touch or groom them, or put the bridle on? Teeth problems could be behind this behaviour.
  • Dehydration. If your horse’s teeth are bothering them, they might be hesitant to drink cold water. This in turn can lead to choke or colic. It’s a good idea to wet your horse’s feed and give them slightly warmer water until they’ve been given the ok, if you think it could be a dental issue.
Close up of a horse eating hay

    Common dental issues in horses (and how to treat them)

    Once your horse’s teeth problems have been diagnosed by a professional, here’s what can be done to resolve them and get your equine pal smiling (figuratively speaking!) again:

    • Abnormal wear. Sharp enamel edges or hooks on either the lower or upper teeth can cause painful ulcers in the cheek or tongue. This can be fixed at your horse’s dental check-up with ‘floating’ – this is when their teeth are filed down with a rasp to stop them cutting the inside of their mouth.
    • Broken or abscessed teeth. If your horse has a broken or abscessed tooth, often the best course of action is to remove it. However, since oral medication can sometimes resolve abscesses, it’s a good idea to go down this route first. If teeth do need to be taken out, a lot of aftercare is needed – daily cleaning and a special diet will inevitably follow for a little while.
    • Tooth decay or ‘caries’. If the problem is a serious one, taking the tooth out will be the preferred course of action. This is often the case for older horses, as they may not have enough tissue left to keep the tooth secure in the gums. If the decay has been found early and the tooth can be saved, then one option is to clean and fill the cavity, in much the same way as when you visit the dentist!
    • Diastema (gaps between teeth) causing gum disease. If your horse has gaps between its teeth, your vet can flush the teeth with antiseptic solution to dislodge any trapped bits of food. A dental pick can also be used to remove food particles and other debris. While their mouth heals, your horse may be prescribed antibiotics to make them more comfortable.
    • Wolf teeth. The small teeth that erupt between 18 months and three years of age are known as ‘wolf teeth’. They sit between the incisors and cheek teeth, right by the bit. So, if your horse is tossing their head or resisting the bit more than usual, it may well be a problem with the wolf teeth. If that’s the case, removal can be the best course of action.

    How to take care of their teeth

    Regular dental check-ups with a qualified equine dental technician or vet are key to keeping your horse’s teeth as healthy as possible. We recommend that a horse in work and stabled – and below the age of 18 – should be checked out every six months. If your horse is out at grass, then a yearly once-over is fine, unless of course they’re showing any signs of pain or discomfort.

    What else can you do to keep your horse’s teeth in tip-top shape?

    • Horses were designed to eat from the ground, as that’s when their jaw is aligned when breaking down food, so avoid placing food or feed buckets up high.
    • Make sure your horse doesn’t get any feed stuck between their incisors (front teeth) by using a stiff toothbrush to remove any build-up.
    • Give their mouth a rinse every now and again with clean water from a hose or large-dose syringe.

    Considering the average horse chews about 60,000 bites per day, we’re sure you’ll agree your horse’s teeth play a very important role in their overall health! So, making sure they’re in top condition is the best gift you could give your horse’s mouth.

    We hope you enjoyed sinking your teeth into our rundown of common horse dental problems! Has it given you a taste for all thing dental? Check out our piece on cleaning your pets’ teeth, and let us know how you keep your dog, cat or horse’s teeth clean and healthy on our Facebook or Instagram pages. We’d love to hear from you!

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