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Horse teeth

Iíd never known horses could get tooth decay.To fill the glaring gap in my knowledge, I got in touch with the equine dentist, Sandra Grover, an Elbert-based veterinarian who specializes in equine dentistry and chiropractic. In addition to her veterinary degree from Colorado State University, she has completed advanced training in equine dentistry and has a virtual arsenal of dental tools specially designed for working on horsesí teeth.Prevention is the key in equine dentistry, she said. ìRegular dental care can prevent problems that can seriously affect your horseís health,î Grover said. The average wild horse only lives 12 years; our domestic horses live much longer and eat differently than horses in the wild, so they need extra care to keep them healthy.The equine mouth is designed to chew food efficiently. The upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw because horses grind their food using a side-to-side motion. Unlike humans, horsesí teeth grow throughout the lifetime and tend to wear unevenly, which interferes with their ability to chew food. An uneven bite can lead to problems such as weight loss and even colic. Food that isnít properly chewed can cause an obstruction in the digestive tract.Young horses have 24 baby teeth and, like humans, they lose these teeth when permanent teeth erupt. An adult horse has 36 to 44 permanent teeth, 12 incisors in the front of the mouth and 24 cheek teeth. Males have four canine teeth that mares usually donít have. Some horses also have up to four ìwolf teeth,î small teeth located in front of the cheek teeth. These teeth are often routinely removed, although not all vets agree on whether this is necessary.Checking a foalís teeth is important because they may have a hereditary problem with their bite that can be corrected before it leads to more serious problems. ìHooks are fairly common in young horses,î Grover said. ìIf a foal has an overbite, certain parts of the tooth are not wearing against other teeth so a hook develops. Youíll see this most often in the back of the mouth. In the young horse, the hooks will prevent proper growth of jaw.îMost horses will lose all their baby teeth between the ages of 2 and 5 years.Itís often hard to tell your horse is having problems with his teeth by his behavior. ìHorses may feel pain but not show it,î Grover said. ìIíve seen horses with very sharp teeth and bad ulcers that donít show any outward signs of pain.î Thatís why itís important to have a regular exam.In examining the horse, Grover said at first she checks the horseís general health through a complete exam, feeling the head and jaw for painful areas or swelling.After examining the exterior, Grover sedates the horse to allow for a closer examination of the teeth using a dental speculum. ìI look for steps, waves, exaggerated roughening of chewing surfaces, decay, fractured teeth and wolf teeth,î she said. Since the horse is sedated, itís not stressful when Grover uses power tools to remove points and create bit seats (the rounding and smoothing of the second premolar to allow the bit to sit more comfortably in the mouth).What about cavities? ìIf you can arrest the decay by drilling out the decayed area and filling it, then we hope the cavity wonít progress and the tooth wonít fracture,î Grover said. If the tooth fractures or breaks, bacteria can invade the space and cause infection, leading to sinus problems and permanent damage to the jaw. Filling a cavity is another way of preventing more serious problems.A foalís mouth should be checked for bite problems during his first well-foal visit. If all looks good, he can be left alone until he is started under saddle. ìYou should have your horseís teeth checked even if youíre doing a lot of in-hand work,î Grover said. ìThe halter will put pressure on those sharp points and interfere with his training.îGrover said she advises checking a young horseís teeth every 6 to 10 months until he is age 4. ìAfter that, the average is once a year,î she said. ìAnd once theyíre 15 to 20, depending on the animal, weíre back to every 6 to 10 months.îAs in humans, when a horse experiences dental problems, it can affect his general health in potentially serious ways. Regular preventive care can help your horse keep happily chewing away well into his old age.

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