Equine dental care has evolved rapidly over the last decade. There has been a revolution in dental research relating to the techniques, equipment and training of practitioners. So much so that treatment once considered implausible in the horse such as pulp capping, cheek tooth and root canal fillings are now being performed and researched in clinics by specialist equine vets.
Dental diseases such as pulpitis (when the blood and nerve supplies become inflamed), and periodontal (gum) disease are being identified at a much earlier stage thanks to enhanced imaging techniques such as digital x-ray, standing CT scan (computerized tomography) and oral endoscopy.
Despite these developments, advanced dental techniques that go beyond smoothing rough edges are met with skepticism by some horse owners who question the benefits of caps, fillings and tooth realignments and whether they’re really necessary.
Horses are adept at masking pain
They’re skilled eaters and are able to alter their chewing motion to accommodate dental pain, often this strategy is so successfully that owners are completely unaware that there is a problem. When eventually a problem transpires, it might be too advanced to treat. Compounding the issue is the fact that the concurrent abnormal wearing of the teeth might eventually result in even further problems such as severe over-growths and other painful conditions.
Prevention is therefore better than cure, so early intervention is vital in restoring normal eating patterns, enabling the horse to re-establish a balanced mouth with even wear, requiring minimal rasping.
Evidence-based research at UK veterinary schools such as Edinburgh, London and Bristol has been vital in developing novel treatments and identifying disease processes.
Complex dental anatomy
The intricacies of equine tooth anatomy is still being investigated. Horses’ teeth have a blood and nerve supply that enters at the root and travels up inside the tooth but the fine detail of these vital supplies inside the tooth, and age-related changes, are still relatively unknown. Their teeth are very much a living structure that should be preserved where possible. Over-treatment of practices such as rasping has the potential to cause irreparable damage, especially in a young horse.
Greater awareness of disease
Advances in imaging technology have made the identification of both healthy and diseased dental structures much easier. Early changes can sometimes be picked up through oral examination and oral endoscopy provides a clear magnified view of the teeth. Manual examinations such as these, however, will only show the visible part of the tooth – the clinical crown – which could be as little as 10% of the whole tooth. To see the whole tooth, most vets opt for either digital x-rays or CT scans, or both.
Latest treatment advances
Procedures associated with human dentistry are starting to become available for horses in specialized vet practices. Thanks to advances in dental materials and research into their application, treatment is already offered where there are problems with incisor teeth and is becoming available for cheek teeth. Some of the treatments include; bridging the teeth to close gaps, widening the gaps between the teeth, pulp capping to seal out infection for fractured teeth and realigning teeth without braces.
All of these treatments can be identified and referred by properly trained dental technicians to be performed by a veterinary surgeon. At present, many diseased teeth will still require extraction, but advances in research and treatment methods are likely to involve proactive dentistry , preserving the teeth and treating infections, all of which are of far more benefit to the horse in the long term.
Read more about the basics of equine dental anatomy here.
Maintaining a healthy mouth – top tips
- Examine teeth annually (minimum!) by a trained dental professional
- Start dental examinations as young as possible, even when treatment is not needed
- Signs of dental pain include; slow eating, dropping food (quidding) and bad breath – although there may be no obvious signs.
- For older horses prone to gum disease avoid long chopped forage – feed a complete feed with a maximum fiber length of 3-4mm.