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February is National Pet Dental Health Month. As with
humans, pets benefit from having good oral hygiene. Dental
disease can lead to pain, tooth loss and infection in other organs
when bacteria from infected teeth and gums enter the blood stream
and circulate throughout the body.
"Regular dental care is important to the well being of today's
horse," notes Dr. Cleet Griffin, clinical assistant professor at
the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical
Sciences. "Foals and weanlings are examined to check for
proper skull and dental development as well as alignment of upper
and lower jaws. This is followed by routine checkups every
six months until about five years old. Once the adult teeth
are in place, annual teeth exams should be performed."
"Horses have teeth with long crowns that are contained within a
deep dental socket. The teeth continually erupt into the
mouth as the grinding surface is worn away," notes Griffin.
Horses chew many times per minute when grazing and eating tough,
fibrous feed material. The horse's teeth slowly wear down
when the upper and lower teeth grind one another while chewing the
forage and feed, explains Griffin. After a few minutes of
chewing, the food softens and is able to be swallowed. Not
only does eating and chewing gradually wear the teeth down, but
sharp points also develop.
"The horse's anatomy (the horse's lower jaw is narrower than its
upper jaw) in combination with the horse's continual tooth eruption
and chewing motion contribute to the formation of sharp points
along the edges of the teeth. Sharp dental points can cause
irritation when the horse is eating or when being ridden because
these areas cut and ulcerate the cheeks and the tongue," notes
Your equine veterinarian will examine your horse's mouth for
odor, inflammation, ulcers, cuts, tooth decay and abnormalities of
wear. Juvenile age performance horses may require more
frequent dental attention to monitor eruption of the permanent
cheek teeth and incisor teeth, explains Griffin.
"To give an equine dental exam, sedation is commonly used.
It makes the procedure safer and easier by providing relaxation and
analgesia which helps to keep the horse more quiet and still, says
Griffin. Only a licensed veterinarian should administer a
sedative to your horse. It is also best if he/she can provide
the comprehensive dental care, too."
A speculum, which is a type of brace, is used to keep the
horse's mouth open during the exam. The speculum is not
painful to the horse when used properly. It facilitates a
better view inside the horse's mouth and provides a safer working
environment for the veterinarian since motorized floats and
specialized dental equipment are now used in conjunction with
manual files, notes Griffin.
Both medication and medical tools are used by your veterinarian
to safely remove 'points' and 'hooks' that could eventually cause
discomfort when your horse eats or takes the bit, explains
Griffin. We float (file) the points off the teeth to prevent
them from cutting the cheek tissue or tongue. Also, floating
often involves reducing the length of overlong teeth in order to
allow free chewing motion and prevent trauma to opposing dental
tissues. Horse teeth contain sensitive pulp and nerves.
When performed properly by the veterinarian, the floating procedure
does not cause harm or pain because great care is taken not to
expose the sensitive tissues of the teeth.
"The horse's mouth is an efficient food-processing
machine. What your horse eats and where he eats it will
affect how your horse's teeth wear. For example, research has
shown that horses fed a grass or hay diet utilize a greater
side-to-side chewing motion, chew more times per minute and spend
more time per day chewing compared to horse that are fed grain
concentrate. With grain concentrate, horses tend to utilize a
more 'up-and-down' chewing motion which contributes to formation of
sharp dental points," notes Griffin.
A thorough dental examination by a veterinarian can provide
important information about the overall well being of your
horse. It is best to detect dental problems early because it
is usually more difficult and costly to correct a later dental
crisis. A healthy mouth that is free from sharp points or
painful areas should help your horse chew and perform more
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