do i need a dental exam for my horse
Q.I have a Morgan mare who, I think, might have something wrong with her teeth. What should I expect from a dental examination for my horse?

—Gail, via e-mail

A.Dental examinations can vary from a superficial examination to identify major abnormalities only to a detailed examination that hopefully will reveal the smallest dental problem. The age and use of the horse will influence the type of examination performed.

Some practitioners’ exams consist of flushing the mouth to remove feed and hay, a visual examination, and possibly a manual examination. This type of examination might identify many problems, especially if the horse is amenable. However, it has the potential to miss problems, especially at the back of the mouth.

As such, it’s wise to use a veterinarian that uses a full-mouth speculum for dental exams, which allows him or her to visualize and palpate all aspects of the horse’s cheek teeth. Most practitioners sedate horses before a speculum exam.

Who Needs Dental Exams?

Newborn foals should be examined to see if there is proper alignment of the incisors (parrot-mouthed or sow-mouthed) or congenital defects of the lips or palate. Procedures that help in correcting malalignment might be available.

All horses going into or already in training should have dental examinations (at least annually) to allow the identification and correction of dental problems such as sharp enamel points and the presence of wolf teeth.

Retired and/or senior horse also require dental examinations and treatment. The latter group might require more frequent evaluation and treatment than younger horses (often every six months) as older horses are at risk for a number of dental issues.

What Problems Might Your Vet Find?

As mentioned before, sharp enamel points will cause discomfort as a bit or noseband might push the cheeks into the sharp points on the outside of the upper cheek teeth. And, not all wolf teeth cause problems, but no wolf tooth ever helped the horse, and some do cause problems. So, most wolf teeth are extracted.

Other problems that should be identified include retained deciduous incisors and premolars (caps), tall/long (dominant) teeth, hooks, ramps, beaks, and unlevel chewing surfaces front to back. The chewing surface of the cheek teeth normally slopes 10-15% from side to side.

Infected or diseased teeth do occur, although they are rare. They are indicated by facial or mandibular swellings, draining tracts, slow eating, holding the head to the side, and bad odor of the mouth. If there are signs of an infected tooth, radiographic examination probably is indicated.

The owner should expect to be told and/or shown what problems/abnormalities the veterinarian identifies and what effect those abnormalities might have on eating, performance, and long-term dental health. The owner should be given an estimate of the professional fees for any indicated corrective procedures. If the corrective procedures are beyond the examiner’s expertise, knowledge, or instrumentation, the owner should expect to be referred to a specialist.

The Bottom Line

Dental examinations are important in the health management of the horse and should be performed on a regular basis. This might be on a six to 12 month basis as indicated by the horse’s age, use, expected level of performance, and overall condition of the teeth. A 10-year old in light pleasure riding should be examined yearly to see if corrective procedures are indicated.

Late two-year olds or late three-year olds in top level competition might need to be seen every month as they shed (or fail to shed) deciduous premolars (caps) and the new permanent cheek teeth develop sharp enamel points. A few horses have such bad occlusions that they need corrective procedures every three months, although that is unusual.

Owners need to observe their horse’s eating habits and performance characteristics closely. If the horse changes either eating and/or performance habits, a dental examination is indicated. Abnormal conditions found at examination need to be corrected. This prevents minor problems from becoming major problems. Good dental care can help reduce the risk of colic and choke, prolong the effectiveness of the teeth, increase feed efficiency, and keep horses performing well.