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Dental exams are key to horse health

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Wheatland – In 600 BC, the first equine dentists would examine a horse’s teeth to determine how old it was. At that time, horse owners considered a horse’s age an important bartering tool, and since then equine dentistry has changed and progressed to become an essential ingredient in maintaining a horse’s health.
    Brenda Unrein is a veterinarian with Laramie Peak Veterinary Associates in Wheatland. Although Unrein performs veterinary work on all species of livestock and small animals, an important part of her practice is equine dentistry. She performs over 200 equine dental exams a year to aid in maintaining horse health.
    Some colts are born with teeth, but most aren’t, according to Unrein.
    “They will start getting them right away. Many times, it can be as early as 10 days,” she says.
    The first teeth a foal develops are the milk teeth, or deciduous teeth, which are known as the baby teeth. During their lifetime, horses will get two sets of 36 teeth, with the second set of teeth developing at age two. The adult teeth, known as hippodontic teeth, are ever-erupting. Those teeth can be up to four inches long, and will wear down as the horse utilizes them through grinding.
    “Usually the first dental problems in a horse develop around two to four years of age,” Unrein explains.
    As the erupting adult teeth come through, they push out the baby teeth.
    “Usually, this poses no problems, but sometimes the cap of the baby tooth will be retained. You may notice this if your horse is trying to use its tongue to flip that cap loose. The cap can also get hung up in the gum tissue, so it is swinging back and forth. You may hear a clicking sound when they are eating from that cap moving around,” she says.
    If the cap doesn’t come off, the horse may need intervention.
    “Because it has access to the root above it, it can cause the root to rot if it isn’t removed,” says Unrein.
    The horse will develop a visible abscess on its face where this occurs that will drain infection. If the adult tooth has to be removed at that point, there will be nothing left for the horse to grind against. This will cause the tooth it should grind against to continue to erupt, causing life-long dental issues.
    “This is one reason I recommend horses receive their first checkup when they are two,” she says. “You really want to monitor them, so you don’t miss any dental problems that may come up and cause lasting issues.”
    Horses should be checked every six months between the ages of two and five.
    “Once the cap comes off, the adult tooth can have edges on it that are sharp and sore for the horse,” she explains.
Dental exams for older horses
    In the wild, horses pick up dirt, particles and rocks that cause their teeth to grind differently.
    “If they live in the wild, they don’t need dentals,” the veterinarian explains. “But, if they were a wild horse, and you adopted them, they do, because you are feeding them processed grain and hay. They don’t get the same grinding affect to keep those points from being sharp.”
    Horses between five and 15 years old will need a dental exam once a year, and once they are 15 or older, every six months.
    “They may not get their teeth floated every time, but they should be checked,” she says, recommending horse owners consider dental exams in the fall before the horses are turned out to pasture for the winter months. It not only helps the horse maintain its body condition through the winter, but it will help make the winter feed bill more efficient. Some horses can also develop colic from dental problems, if they aren’t digesting their feed properly and develop an impaction, she says.
    Horse owners should watch for other signs of dental issues like dropping feed, a loss in body condition for no apparent reason, shaking or holding their head funny, or even ringing their tail.
    “The biggest fallacy I hear is ‘my horse doesn’t need a dental because it’s fat,’” she states. “Usually that horse will need a dental as much as a skinnier horse. It may have a different metabolism where it can still eat a smaller amount of feed, and keep the weight on, where a slimmer horse can’t.”
    When Unrein sedates a horse for a dental exam and puts the speculum in the horse’s mouth to hold it open, the horse owner is usually surprised at what they see.
    “A lot of the time you will see lots of sores and ulcers on the tongue and gums from misalignment or lack of dental care,” she says.
    After she finishes an exam, Unrein likes to move the jaws to make sure the teeth are aligned and the mouth moves freely.
    “A horse grinds its teeth similar to a cow,” she explains. “If the horse can’t grind its teeth correctly, then I haven’t done my job.”
    Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup from Wheatland. Send comments on this article to

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