Equine Dentistry
by Katherine Burnett, D.V.M
kbdvm@yahoo.com * 509-443-7186

Benefits of Equine Dentistry

As a complement to traditional "floating," which is the process of filing down sharp edges on the teeth, restorative dentistry keeps the teeth & jaw in proper alignment, allowing the forward & back and side-to-side movement of the jaw that are essential to proper communication with the bit.

The advantages of comprehensive dental treatment and maintenance are numerous & dramatic.

Some dressage horses that have been unable to progress can go on the next level after their dental abnormalities are corrected. In addition, horses that have previously been unable to perform certain movements may be able to complete them. Head tossing, tongue lolling, and evading the bit are greatly alleviated in some individuals.

Many obscure problems, such as head & neck stiffness, back soreness, and rough transitions are often improved or eliminated with proper dental care.

Most importantly, good dental care helps horses live longer, more comfortable lives. Many horses suffering from chronic weight loss, colic, or choke will improve tremendously after restorative dental care. They can chew & digest feed more efficiently, and can live years longer, in greater comfort. Misalignments of the jaw can be corrected, which prevents tooth decay & gum disease. Decayed teeth can be filled or extracted, improving overall health.

Of course, prevention is the ultimate goal. Starting care at an early age often prevents these problems from occurring in the first place.

Clients often ask why horses need periodic dental. An obvious reason is that, like humans, horses can suffer from dental decay, gum disease, and tooth loss. In addition, their teeth erupt & wear continuously throughout their lives, so their bite planes and patterns are always changing.

A further complicating factor is that we have modified horses' diet & eating patterns through domestication, so that they are eating foods that do not keep their teeth worn down adequately. Studies of wild horses have proven this. Domestic diets result in excessive eruption of teeth & subsequent occlusion problems. And, of course, we want our horses to be good athletes, so any slight dental misalignments may adversely affect performance. Finally, we do not select breeding animals based on the quality of their dentition, so many genetically based abnormalities are often passed to the next generation.

Current Dental Care Recommendations

Proper dental care, including restorative techniques, should not be confined only to show horses. All horses need regular, quality dental care to prevent colic, choke, weight loss, and painful gum disease & tooth loss. It is as important as vaccinations & proper foot care.

First Year

The mouth should be examined at birth, and again at 3 to 4 months, when first vaccines are given. Very minor restorative procedures are sometimes needed at this young age, and these can help prevent more extensive problems from developing as the horse ages.

Aged two to five

Deciduous (baby) teeth are shedding, and permanents are erupting. Horses should be checked for bite abnormalities and have any loose deciduous teeth (also called caps) removed. Wolf teeth should be removed. All of these procedures should be performed before a bit is placed in the horse's mouth. It is important to remember that the first introductions to the bit that the horse experiences can create memories that remain for a lifetime. If his teeth are sharp, these will be unpleasant introductions.

Serious competitors should consider rechecks every four to six months until age four, especially if performance problems arise. All horses shed & replace 24 teeth by the time they are five, and the erupting teeth are always sharp.

Aged five to 18

At minimum, teeth should be examined once per year. Horses without serious pre-existing conditions can usually maintain acceptable dental health with a yearly check, but optimum athletic performance is usually achieved when exams & necessary procedures are performed every 6 months. If small sharp points that develop on the molars of performance horses are checked and/or removed at least every six months, this will allow more freedom of jaw movement as the horse works on the bit. Some horses are very sensitive to any jaw restriction at all.

Whether you choose an annual or semi-annual exam for your horse will depend on many factors, including pre-existing dental problems, economic considerations, and your expectations for level of performance.

Geriatric horses (18 and over)

The frequency of examination of the aged horse is determined on a case-by-case basis, but examinations should always be performed at least once yearly. Many older horses have a tremendous amount of oral pathology and benefit immensely from restorative work by gaining weight & experiencing fewer incidences of digestive disorders, especially colic.

Floating and Routine Dentistry

This is the removal of sharp points on the molars that lead to discomfort and a tense jaw.

Incisor (front tooth) reduction

Domestic horses eat mostly hay & grain. They do not have to tear it with their incisors, whereas horses on pasture constantly tear at grass & wear the incisors down. As a result, domestic horses often have overgrown incisors by the time they reach their early teens-sometimes earlier. These overgrown teeth create excessive gaps between the back (grinding) teeth by impaling the mouth open.

This is one of the most common causes of weight loss in horses, and can be corrected with minimal cost and discomfort to the animal. Almost all horses will benefit from this procedure at least once or twice in a lifetime.

Wolf tooth, cap, molar and incisor extractions

Correction of occlusal (bite) abnormalities, such as hooks, wave, and step mouth. Excessively overgrown teeth are reduced, returning the mouth to as natural a state as possible.

Creation of bit seats

These are sculpted areas on the front molars that increase bridle comfort and performance in many horses.

Special Care for geriatric horses

Gentle, low R.P.M. instruments are the kindest available for the sensitive teeth of the older horse

Miniature horses

Dr. Burnett is very experienced with miniature horses, and she uses instruments specifically designed for this breed.

Advanced dental services

Dr. Burnett stays up to date with current techniques & instrumentation, and she incorporates them into her practice. Recent advances in equine dentistry include progress in endodontics (root canal therapy), composite fillings, bridge work, and antibiotic treatment of periodontal (gum) disease.


Risks associated with most dental procedures are minimal. Horses must be sedated in order to have a thorough assessment & treatment, but remain standing during the procedure. Their heads are supported on a stand.

Adverse reactions to sedation in the healthy, and even elderly, horse are very rare. Sedation can be safely reversed with medications after the procedure. Some horses develop temporary jaw pain after a procedure, and may eat gingerly for a few days thereafter. There are special risks involved with tooth extraction, and these will be discussed beforehand.

Special diets, and perhaps medication, will be prescribed if a horse has extensive work. The sedatives used in equine dentistry are excellent pain relievers, and an additional injection of pain reliever is also given if necessary.


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December 11, 2001 11:32 PM