Deep up the creek so to say...
Sunday, March 03, 2013
|Travis Henry, DVM|
"I’m not so concerned with floating the teeth and removing all the sharp points," Henry said. "We do have to maintain the teeth; that’s true. But what’s important is heading off periodontal diseases. That’s what can save a horse’s life."
Henry encouraged horse owners and managers to enlist the help of a fully trained and licensed veterinarian for all equine dental care. Not only do veterinarians have the training and experience to handle a wide range of dental challenges, veterinarians also are licensed and insured to protect themselves and the client, he said.
A thorough oral exam requires the use of a mouth speculum and sedation of the horse. A "dental technician" has no license to sedate a horse and may not have the training needed to actually do a good exam. There’s more to equine dental care than filing off a few points.
"It’s dentistry. Not carpentry," Henry said, speaking at the recent Keeping Your Horse Healthy program sponsored by the Illinois and Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Bi-state Horse Program.
Horses chew hay and grass in a circular motion going side to side and back and forth (rostal and caudal). When chewing with its head raised, a horse will chew side to side and when it lowers its head and chews, the horse will tend to use the back-and-forth motion. Food is worked into a ball that’s sized to pass through a small opening in the throat, he explained.
With all that grinding action, there are opportunities for something to go amiss. When problems appear, those problems often are related one way or another to some human action. Genetics can play a role in creating horses with poor dental conformation and sometimes it’s an action taken by an owner to make the horse do something to perform.
Either way, the teeth and gums are a direct line into the head of the horse and especially the sinus cavity, Henry said. A dental problem sometimes appears as nasal discharge, eruptions on the cheek or elsewhere on the nose or even a foul smell.
"Sometimes you’ll smell a problem before you see it," he said.
"The live tissue in a tooth is pretty important," Henry said. "If it’s missing or there’s something wrong with the tissue, it’s just a tube right up into the head and the sinuses. The sinuses can hold about a quart and a half so an infection can sometimes involve the whole head."
A key to knowing what’s going on in a horse’s mouth is X-rays. Anatomy of the mouth and head frequently play a role in where food gets caught and how food is chewed, so having a baseline picture of the structure can help veterinarians pinpoint possible trouble spots.
The X-ray also helps the vet see inside the bone tissue to have an idea if it’s healthy. Henry suggested annual radiographs to monitor changes over time and to spot any developing issues before something more serious crops up.
Henry encouraged horse owners and managers to keep a close eye on what’s going on in the mouth and around the teeth. Red tissue, bad smells, discharges or eruptions are all strong indicators of something going haywire. Changes in eating or finding spit-up hay balls in paddocks and pastures also are a clue.
"Dental problems are painful for the horse," he said. "They know exactly where in the mouth it hurts the most."
"Look at health care as a year-round cycle and not based on an event," said Liv Sandberg, UW-Madison Extension equine specialist. "Sometimes it's too late if you only call a vet for an emergency."
Looking ahead to spring, Sandberg cautioned horse owners to keep an eye on pastures. Many places in the state experienced a hard drought and pastures were likely overgrazed.
"Most of the forage specialists believe we'll see more weeds this spring because of conditions last year," she said. "And be aware of toxic weeds coming into pastures and hay fields too. You'll need to be on the forefront of weed control this spring."
Related to spring pastures and feeding is body condition scoring. Guides are available online to help horse owners learn how to do body condition scores. A growing issue is obesity in horses, and learning how to detect changes in the way a horse looks can head off trouble later.
"The guides show you where to look for fatty deposits and assign a number to the condition," Sandberg said. "When you see your horses every day it's sometimes hard to notice gradual changes. Learning how to body condition score is also a way to communicate good information with a vet."
Exercise is important to the health of horses. Routinely working with your horses provides needed exercise and creates the opportunity to know how the animal moves and behaves. Knowing normal movement and behavior is a key to noticing a change, she said.
Body temperature, pulse and respiration all offer clues to horse health. A normal temperature is about 100 degrees; 40 beats per minute is a good pulse as a rule of thumb. A horse at rest should breath about 12 times a minute.
"Taking a temperature is something you can learn to do yourself. And it's a good thing to practice so it's not a big thing for you or the horse," Sandberg said. "Keep in mind that temperatures can vary on a hot day or if your horse is exercising. Taking its temperature once in a while helps you learn what is normal for your horse."
Learning how to take a pulse on your horse is another thing owners can learn to do, she added. The best way is with a stethoscope applied to the horse's side just behind the elbow. "The pulse is very soft and low but with some practice you can learn how," she said.
If you don't have a stethoscope, there is a small vein right under the mandible. Find the vein with a finger and press gently until the pulse is felt. Again, the technique may take practice, but it's a great thing to know, Sandberg said.
Respiration rate is a way to monitor lung and breathing health. It's as simple as holding the back of your hand close to a nostril and counting the times you feel the horse exhale.
"If you find yourself in a spot where you have to call a veterinarian, you'll be able to communicate this information right away if you know how to do a few basic things," Sandberg said.
Another key to horse health is found in its mouth. Mucus membranes and the gums around the teeth should be pink. Bright red flesh can indicate infection and dental issues and pale- or gray-colored flesh also indicates something is wrong, she said. Press your finger into the gums around the teeth and the pink color should pop back right away, which indicates circulation is good in the area.
"Horse owners should all know how to do the skin pinch test to see if the animal is dehydrated," Sandberg said. "Pinch the skin on the horse's body into a tent shape. When you release, the skin should snap back to normal. If it stays tented up, your horse may be dehydrated."
Keep an eye on how often and how much the horse defecates and urinates. Changes in volume, color, consistency and smell can indicate something isn't working.
"Listen for gut sounds," Sandberg said. "You should hear gut sounds every 15 to 30 seconds. If you don't hear anything or if it's churning constantly there may be a problem," she said.
Discharges from eyes or nostrils also are indications something has changed or isn't right. Bright eyes and clear nostrils are signs of a healthy horse.
"Being able to relay this kind of information to a vet can really save a lot of time and may help your horse in case a vet is needed," she said.
Last but not least, Sandberg encouraged horse owners to keep records. If you take the time to look your animal over completely, keep a record of the observations, she said. Just like body condition scoring, it's sometimes hard to detect small changes over time.
Dogs and cats can adjust to the loss of a foot. Horses? Not so much.
Without sound feet and legs, the horse is history, said Kevin Nelson of Bristol Veterinary Clinic. And trouble with hooves is among the most common of all equine ailments.
"With as much as has been studied and written about hooves, we're still learning," Nelson said. "It's the most frustrating topics veterinarians have to deal with."
Determining what exactly a "normal" hoof is supposed to look like is actually part of the frustration. There isn't any uniformity because no two horses are the same and no two horses are ever in the same category of use.
"We can take MRIs of horse hooves and what we find is a huge range for normal," Nelson said. "And to make it more complicated, we've (humans) created most of the problems we do find."
Nelson described the situation in a horse's hoof as like a person standing all day on his middle finger. There's one bone (coffin bone) encased in a flexible hard shell all attached and wrapped up with other bones, ligaments and muscles like so many strips of Velcro.
"The hoof itself flexes like a spring when the animal moves," Nelson said while speaking at the recent Keeping Your Horse Healthy seminar as part of a bi-state Extension horse conference. "When something seems off with a horse our rule of thumb is that the problem is in the hoof until you can proveIt' otherwise."
Further adding to the frustration with hoof care is the range of potential crossover problems. Physical conformation, diet, injuries, seasonal changes, how the horse is used and an even longer list of items can involve the hoof.
"Human neglect, ignorance, abuse and just being naive can all come into play," he said. "And once a horse has laminitis it becomes a survivor. It's never really cured because there's always potential for a relapse so we manage these horses rather than try to cure."
Horse owners can take precautions to reduce the potential for laminitis. Nelson said to take it easy with feed changes. With spring pasture just around the corner, he advised people to be wary of the fresh, lush grass with many horses. Nelson reported that every spring he sees a wave of foundered horses that went out of the barn and onto lush pastures.
"Exercise is probably the best preventive therapy for all horses," he added. "A well-managed diet and routine exercise go a long way. Often, fitness alone will improve laminitis."
There are, of course, trauma types of injuries with punctures leading the list. Hooves are like nail magnets and that's a leading cause of hoof injury. Keeping pastures and barns free of debris is the best medicine.
Nelson urged people who breed horses to be more aware of what is being passed on. Good conformation in the first place will prevent many issues with feet. He said horses are now often bred for traits that have little to do with good feet and legs.
And there are the many weird things done to horses to make them look better, or perform differently in the show-ring. Some practices can verge on abuse and there are a few things that are in fact banned. It's also important to match the horse to the types of activities that suit the animal. "A Quarter horse with tiny feet probably shouldn't run cross country, for example," he said.
Finally, Nelson suggested that horse owners work with a team of professionals. The team should include a top-notch farrier, a veterinarian, someone good with animal nutrition and all the trainers and stable owners involved in the animal's life.