June 21, 2021
By Laura Waitt D.V.M., DACVIM
In the past several decades, equine dentistry has evolved from blindly rattling a handheld rasp (called a float) around the inside of a horse’s mouth to an artform using elegant, water-cooled, precise motorized instruments. Advances in equine dental care, along with nutrition have enabled more horses to perform their jobs into their twenties and thirties.
Horses are hypsodonts, meaning their teeth continually erupt throughout their lives. Young horses less than 10 years of age erupt about 4mm of tooth a year. They can develop sharp points on their teeth and may need a new bit seat every 6 months–especially those in performance barns that have not yet learned the discipline and pain tolerance it takes to ignore the distractions of sharp points and irregular bit seats. This slows over their lifetimes so that by their twenties, they are erupting 1mm a year. We can correct dental pathology found in young horses and have them enter their twenties with ideal arcades (rows of teeth). At thirty, the teeth are typically at full attrition and no longer erupting.
Routine dental care has been accepted equine practice for a generation or two, and it is vital that we teach our future equine veterinarians to provide excellent dental prophylaxis and identify problems early in their course to allow effective intervention. In the early days of motorized dentistry, it was easy to get aggressive with power tools which led many equine clients to shy away from this care in preference of un-sedated rasping with no oral examination. With the diamond tipped cutting burrs we currently have available, we essentially ‘paint’ away the sharp points and occlusal abnormalities that can develop over time, with little to no force. Sedation is incredibly safe when performed by a veterinarian and it allows a thorough examination and prophylaxis with no pain or anxiety. The horse snoozes peacefully through the entire procedure.
When performing an examination, we focus on the grind and function of the horse’s dental arcades. We chart everything to ensure we identify problems and follow them over time. We make minute adjustments to return the teeth to ideal function. In severe abnormalities, the therapeutic adjustments are balanced by the ability of the arcades to grind and chew. If we removed the entire occlusal surface to completely correct a severe wave mouth, the horse’s teeth would not grind, and the horse could not chew. We are limited to removing approximately 5mm of tooth during a procedure so that we do not open the pulp cavity and destroy the tooth. Often, with severe abnormalities we will need to float every 3-6 months to address the pathology.
Equine dentistry is still a long way from human dentistry in which endodontics are routine. Because equine teeth continually erupt throughout life, a root canal procedure or filling in a cavity will eventually wear out. It is a blessing, in that new tooth is always on the horizon and some problems can resolve on their own with time. The Midwestern University Equine and Bovine Center can also now perform intraoral x-rays on horses, which has been standard for decades in human and small animal practices. This allows us to see a particular tooth with no overlap of other teeth, and we can identify problems even more quickly and accurately. At the beginning of my career, one of my professors told me that ‘by the time we diagnose a horse with a tooth abscess, the problem has likely been there two years.’ I hope to teach my students something very different and much more proactive.
The faculty veterinarians at Midwestern University Equine Bovine Center are happy to consult with your veterinarian to provide x-rays and identify tooth abnormalities. For more information or to schedule an appointment at our Glendale clinic or onsite, call 623-806-7575.
The information contained in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, care, or treatment. Always consult your veterinarian for any questions regarding any possible medical condition.
Laura Waitt, D.V.M., DACVIM, is board-certified in large animal internal medicine and serves as Clinical Assistant Professor at the Equine and Bovine Center at Midwestern University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Glendale, Arizona. Dr. Waitt supervises veterinary students in their last two years of clinical training at the Equine and Bovine Center, part of the Midwestern University Animal Health Institute. The Equine and Bovine Center provides veterinary diagnostic and treatment services both at the Glendale clinic and on location, utilizing the latest technology to provide high-quality care at affordable prices. For more information, call 623-806-7375 or visit: www.mwuanimalhealth.com