|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."