Regular dental checks are essential for good equine health, writes Siobhán English
GOOD dental care is as important to your horse’s well-being as your own. Yet many owners choose to take shortcuts when it comes to preventing disease and ensuring their equines are comfortable when they are ridden.
Not too many of us will visit an unqualified ‘human’ dentist in our lifetime, but in the equine world, there are many still willing to seek the services of people unqualified for jobs such as farriery work and equine dentistry.
“As an owner, if you are using an equine dental technician, you need to make sure they are either members of the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians or the World Wide Association of Equine Dentistry to ensure they are properly qualified,” said the former president of the British Veterinary Dental Association, Rob Pascoe.
Under the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, all diagnostic and treatment procedures in the horse’s mouth are acts of veterinary surgery.
However, there are a limited number of procedures that, despite being considered acts of veterinary surgery, can be carried out by suitably qualified EDTs.
To date, there have been several routes available to become an Equine Dental Technician, including private apprentice- ships, overseas training and formal education programmes in the UK.
“The term ‘dentist’ should only be applied to the human field and there is no direct equine equivalent, though vets with diploma level qualifications are the nearest thing,” said Neil Townsend, a specialist in equine surgery.
“Only veterinary surgeons can administer treatments such as antibiotics and anti-inflammatories and provide sedation, whether oral or intravenous.”
In recent weeks, a new raft of resources for both horse owners and veterinarians undertaking oral care on horses is being promoted by the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA).
The new online resource explains exactly what routine dentistry entails and who is qualified to do what in your horse’s mouth — there are strict regulations limiting what nonvets can do.
So who should look after my horse’s teeth? By using your veterinary surgeon or a dental technician who is a member of the BAEDT, you ensure your horse receives dental care from a properly qualified individual who has appropriate insurance and is professionally regulated.
Individuals who are not regulated, or who describe themselves as ‘equine dentists’, are not legally allowed to undertake the same type of dental care for your horse.
Prevention is always better than cure, so ensure that your horse has regular dental checks. Monitoring your horse for signs of any dental discomfort is crucial being mindful that some horses, even with advanced dental disease, will suffer in silence.
Early detection and treatment of dental abnormalities is vital as one problem tends to lead to a variety of problems in time, which can be more difficult to correct. Some problems may need to be treated over a period of time rather than at one examination.
For example a large overgrowth will need to be reduced in stages to avoid the sensitive structures within the tooth from becoming exposed.
On initial examination, your vet or equine dental technician will ask some questions about your horse, his eating habits and any problems you may have noticed, as well as perform a brief examination of his head to check for symmetry and swellings. A gag (apparatus to hold the mouth open) will be used to allow a full visual and manual examination of the whole mouth, including the teeth, palate, tongue, cheeks, bars and the lips.
Generally, a routine rasping will then be carried out to remove any sharp edges on the cheek teeth. In most cases, this is done with a variety of handheld rasps.
If there are large overgrowths or the mouth requires more advanced treatment, motorised equipment and/or more advanced tools may be used.
Don’t be alarmed if it is suggested that your horse would benefit from sedation to allow even the most minor of procedures and rasping.
Speak to your vet about sedation and to ask any questions you would like answered. They may be able to prescribe an oral sedative, which you can give before the appointment, however, in many instances your vet will give the sedation directly into the vein. Sedation allows your horse to relax, ensuring the procedure can be carried out effectively and safely for all parties, including your horse, the handler and the vet or equine dental technician.
ANATOMY OF THE HORSE’S MOUTH
Designed to chew rough fibre for over 18 hours a day, a horse’s teeth are very hard wearing. This diet, together with the horse’s chewing action, wears his teeth down at a rate of approximately 2mm-3mm per year.
To compensate for this wear, a horse’s teeth continue to erupt through the gums into the mouth over time until he reaches an age when there is simply nothing more left to erupt. When this occurs, he simply loses his teeth.
In the wild, the horse’s own chewing action generally wears his teeth evenly to prevent sharp edges and spikes from forming over time. However, as it is now more normal for us to stable our horses and feed them concentrates, their normal chewing activity is reduced which can result in sharp edges forming, causing discomfort and eating problems.
Equally, expecting our horses to work in bridles puts other pressures on their mouths, which wouldn’t normally happen in the wild.
The horse has a total of 36 teeth, with males having additional canine teeth, which are not normally present in mares or fillies.
Additionally, some horses develop ‘wolf teeth’, which are small functionless teeth that can erupt just in front of the first cheek tooth.
The incisors or front teeth are designed for grazing and biting at grass, whilst the cheek teeth or molars, which extend to the level of the eye, are responsible for grinding food.
HORSES MAY NEED SEDATION FOR EVEN THE MOST MINOR OF PROCEDURES
A horse’s teeth can wear down at a rate of 2mm-3mm a year