By Dr. Shane Baird
There are a surprising number of saying that relate to the mouth of a horse. A statement is said to be from the highest authority if it’s come “straight from the horse’s mouth”. Older individuals are a bit “long in the tooth”, and “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is an admonition not to be ungrateful when you have received a gift. Likely, there are so many of these old idioms because it’s always been true that looking into a horses’ mouth is critical for their continuing health.
The Importance of Looking into a Horses’ Mouth
Young or old, every horse should receive a regular dental examination. Examination can occur without actually “working on the teeth,” i.e. floating. Because horses have hypsodont (continuously erupting) teeth, a horse’s mouth needs to be monitored for irregularities such as lost or broken teeth, as well as abnormal conformation. Changes or abnormalities that occur as a youngster can be amplified over the years if they are not tended to, causing significant issues as an adult or geriatric.
Most horses should have their first full dental exam around age 2 or 3. By this time, many horses are starting into training and will be wearing a bit for the first time. These youngsters are also quickly shedding their caps (losing baby teeth) and have a drastically changing mouth. With so many teeth coming and going (incisors and cheek teeth), any of these steps can become problematic.
What Happens in a Dental Exam?
Sedation of the horse is the first step in being able to get a good look. Once sedated, every veterinarian will have a little different order of operations, but evaluation of the whole mouth (inside and out) is essential to formulating a plan for the individual horse. After examination of the incisors, a full mouth speculum is placed in the horse’s mouth. This apparatus holds the mouth open and allows the veterinarian to have a complete look at the structures of the oral cavity including occlusion (the “bite” of the horse), periodontal tissue, crown of the tooth, and other soft tissue.
During the exam, it has historically been difficult for the veterinarian to effectively show clients exactly what is going on, but this hurdle is being overcome with technology. The increasing use of scopes and digital camera devices within the oral cavity allows for imaging that can then be “shared” and explained in better detail. Not only does this allow the horse owner to understand the issues at hand, it allows the veterinarian a more complete visualization of the mouth.
The Use of Radiographs in Equine Dentistry
The final aspect of a comprehensive dental exam would be radiographs (x-rays). We can only see a small portion of the tooth exposed in the mouth. There is much more below the surface, and the only way for us to see into that space is with radiographs.
Historically, radiographs of the equine skull have been very difficult to interpret, even for an experienced veterinarian, because when taking radiographs of the cheek teeth there is an overlap of both sides of the head, creating a “double image” of the teeth and their roots. Today, we use a new technology called intraoral radiographic plates. Just like the images your dentist takes, radiographs with intraoral plates eliminate the overlapping issue making dental disease diagnosis more straightforward. This has improved our diagnostic capabilities stall side. Diseases such as EOTRH (see our blog post for more on EOTRH), must be radiographed to characterize the progression and extent of the process.
Equine dentistry continues to improve and advance. A complete and thorough age appropriate examination is the first step to quickly identify issues and correct or mitigate the problems they might cause in the future.