No fear of the dentist
Text: Anna Castronovo
Why do horses have to go to the dentist?
The horse’s teeth are no longer evenly worn with our current feeding methods.
Photo: Anna Castronovo
Even horses have to go to the dentist regularly. Their main problem is not tooth decay, as in humans, but the irregular wear and tear of their teeth. There is a fundamental difference between human teeth and horse teeth: The molars of horses rub more or less evenly through extensive chewing and grinding. “The tooth is pushed one to three millimetres per year from the tooth socket for the rest of its life,” explains veterinarian and dental specialist Dr. Sophia Parzer from Karlsfeld. “Therefore the teeth become shorter, the older the horse is. If the abrasion is not uniform, malpositioning of the teeth or razor-sharp edges on the cheek teeth, the so-called hooks, occur. In horses, the upper jaw is slightly wider than the lower jaw, which is why the teeth do not stand exactly on top of each other. In addition, horses usually eat a lot of grain, for which their teeth are not actually made. “The more concentrated feed a horse eats, the less it grinds,” explains Dr. Parzer. “And the more roughage a horse eats, the greater the abrasion. That’s like eating wholemeal bread or yoghurt as a human being.” When eating grain, the horse grinds the grains in the middle of the chewing surfaces, making only small chewing movements so that the food does not fall off the side of the teeth. This results in sharp edges on the sides of the cheek teeth, which can injure the tongue or mucous membrane of the cheek. When the horse chews hay and straw slowly and for a long time, the cheek teeth grind with even and wide chewing rashes.
What are the symptoms of dental problems?
“Horses often show pain only when they become unbearable. In most cases, the symptoms are so vague that it is difficult to determine their causes,” says Parzer. “When investigating the causes, veterinarians often do not immediately think of their teeth. For her doctoral thesis, she investigated 52 cases of dental problems. “There were horses with dull fur, problems with the immune system and headshaking symptoms. They were also often shy and unridden. Some were even supposed to go to the butcher before toothaches were recognized as a cause,” she says. Clear indications of tooth problems, on the other hand, are food leftovers in the crib, especially hay wraps. Emaciation, throat blockages or constipation colic can also be caused by dental problems. Or does the horse have problems biting off carrots or hard bread? Then the incisors can hurt. Reddened gums, bad breath, stinking nasal discharge, swelling in the face and wounds that do not heal – especially on the lower jaw – are indications of inflammation in the mouth area. When riding, horses with toothaches not only defend themselves against the teeth and the rider’s hand, some also discard themselves in the neck due to painful hooks or can be badly positioned to one side. Nevertheless: “Many horses do not show pain and still eat well even though they already have dental problems,” emphasizes Dr. Parzer. “It is therefore important to examine and correct the teeth at least once a year. This is the best way to prevent dental problems”. What else can be done: “To provide the horse with a lot of roughage so that the teeth are worn as evenly as possible. Too much sugar, e.g. molasses in feed mixtures, should be avoided to prevent tooth decay”.
How does dental treatment work?
For the dental treatment the head of the sedated horse is “hung up”.
Photo: Anna Castronovo
A mouth gate should definitely be used during a dental examination. This is the only way to identify possible problems. This is because the veterinarian has to partially disappear into the horse’s mouth up to the elbow in order to reach the posterior cheek teeth. During a routine check, the veterinarian checks whether hooks have formed or whether misalignments have occurred, e.g. whether the incisors are longer than the molars. Such irregularities can easily be corrected by shredding. In addition, tartar is removed and the teeth are checked for caries. The vet will also check whether there is any inflammation or injury in the mouth. Another reason for the regular visit to the dentist: “With a horse that is always examined at similar intervals, the veterinarian can much better estimate in which intervals, for example, hooks form or teeth have to be grated,” says Parzer.
Sedation or general anesthesia?
If one tooth is longer than the others, it must be ground off.
Photo: Anna Castronovo
In such a routine treatment, which lasts about an hour, the horse is lightly anaesthetised to save him stress. Then the horse dozes in a relaxed standing position and the vet can examine and treat the teeth in peace. “I would never do a dental treatment without sedation,” says veterinarian Parzer. “After all, you can’t tell a horse to keep its mouth open and its head still. The risk of injury for horse and human would also be extremely high without anaesthesia. In addition, I could not do my work on a horse that hits its head or tries to tear itself away properly.” In case of a painful treatment, e.g. if a tooth has to be extracted, the affected area can also be anaesthetised locally. General anesthesia is only used for dental treatments in extreme emergencies. “General anesthesia is always a high risk,” explains Parzer. “The horse has to be laid down and then tries to get up in panic when waking up, injuring itself and the people around it. The decisive difference: during sedation, the horses stop and come back to themselves relatively quickly. “We make the world a little pink for the horses for the duration of the treatment,” jokes the veterinarian. That’s what many people would wish for during a visit to the dentist.
Veterinarian or horse dentist?
Important to know: Only a veterinarian is allowed to give an anaesthetic injection. There are also so-called dentists, but this title is not protected – in principle, anyone can call himself a dentist. Horse dental practitioners or horse dentists have not acquired their specialist knowledge through veterinary studies, but through courses and examinations, e.g. at the IGFP (International Society for the Functional Improvement of Horse Teeth). There are dentists who therefore work together with veterinarians – but this costs the horse owner correspondingly more. The title “horse dentist” may not be used by the way at all. Our tip: The best thing to do for a dental examination is to contact a veterinarian who specialises in dentistry.
Veterinarian Dr. Sophia Parzer graduated in 2009 with a doctorate in equine teeth and specializes in dental treatment.
Photo: Anna Castronovo
A trained journalist who has turned her passion into her profession: Anna writes about riding lessons, breeding & sports, medicine, keeping & feeding. She has been riding since childhood and owns her own horse.