FLOATING & PREVENTATIVE MAINTENANCE
An oral examination should be an essential part of an annual physical examination by a veterinarian. Every dental exam provides the opportunity to perform routine preventative dental maintenance. The end result is a healthier, more comfortable horse.
Routine maintenance of a horse's teeth has been historically referred to as "floating." Floating removes the sharp enamel points. Occlusal equilibration is the term now used to describe smoothing enamel points, correcting malocclusion, balancing the dental arcades and correcting other dental problems listed under "Common Dental Problems." A complete oral examination should precede any dental procedures.
When turned out on pasture, horses graze almost continuously, picking up dirt and grit in the process. This, plus the silicate in grass, wears down the teeth. Stabled horses, however, may not give their teeth the same workout. Feedings are more apt to be scheduled, not continuous, and include processed grains and hays. Softer feeds require less chewing. This may allow the horse's teeth to become excessively long or to wear unevenly. Adult teeth erupt throughout life and are worn down by chewing.
Because the horse's lower rows of cheek teeth are closer together than the upper rows of cheek teeth and the horse chews with a sideways motion, sharp points form along the edges of the cheek teeth. Points form on the outside (cheek side) of the upper teeth and tongue side of the lower teeth. These points should be smoothed to prevent damage and ulceration of the cheeks and tongue.
Routine examination and correction is especially important in horses that are missing teeth or whose teeth are not wearing properly because of misalignment. For example, if the front or last cheek teeth are out of alignment, hooks can form. Untreated, these hooks can become long or sharp enough to damage soft tissue. Short hooks or other malocclusions may be corrected with hand instruments. Tall malocclusions may be corrected with motorized instruments. Motorized instruments have replaced molar cutters and chisels because there is less chance of tooth damage. Tall malocclusions may require several treatments spread over 12 to 18 months.
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The age of a horse affects the degree of attention and frequency of dental care required. Consider these points:
- Foals should be examined shortly after birth and periodically during the first year to diagnose and correct congenital dental abnormalities (existing from birth).
- Yearlings have been found to have enamel points sharp enough to damage cheek and tongue tissue. Floating will make them more comfortable.
- Horses going into training for the first time, especially 2- and 3-year-olds, need a comprehensive dental check-up. Teeth should be floated to remove any sharp points and checked for retained caps. Caps should be removed if they have not been shed. This should be done before training begins to prevent training problems related to sharp teeth.
- Horses aged 2 to 5 years may require more frequent dental exams than older horses. Deciduous teeth tend to be softer than permanent teeth and may develop sharp enamel points more quickly Also, there is an extraordinary amount of dental maturation during this period. Twenty-four teeth will be shed and replaced by 36 to 40 adult teeth. To prevent maleruption problems, twice-a-year examinations are appropriate for young horses from birth to 5 years of age.
- Mature horses should get a thorough dental examination at least annually to maintain correct dental alignment and to diagnose dental problems as early as possible.
- Senior horses (17 years old or older) are at increased risk for developing periodontal disease. This painful disease must be diagnosed early for a successful treatment. Also, it is important to maintain a correct bite plane during a horse's teens in order to ensure a functional grinding surface beyond 20 years of age. Beyond the age of 20, the tooth surfaces may be worn excessively and/or unevenly, and dental alignment correction may be impossible.
- Horses over 20 years of age should receive a dental evaluation and nutritional counseling at least annually to maintain their conditioning and quality of life. With routine dental care, many horses will maintain a functional dentition into their third and fourth decades of life.
- If a horse starts behaving abnormally, dental problems should be considered as a potential cause.
- Abnormalities should be corrected and teeth should be floated and maintained as indicated.
- Wolf teeth are routinely extracted from performance horses to prevent interference with the bit and its associated pain.
- Sedatives, local anesthetics, and analgesics can relax the horse and keep it more comfortable during floating and other dental procedures. Such drugs should be administered only by a veterinarian.
- Most equine dental procedures, including basic floating, irreversibly change the horse's teeth and therefore are most appropriately performed by a veterinarian.
- If your equine practitioner finds a loose tooth, he or she may extract it. This may reduce the chance of infection or other problems.
- Canine teeth, usually present in mature geldings and stallions, may be rounded and smoothed. This procedure is performed to prevent interference with the bit and to reduce the possibility of injury to the horse, the handler and other horses pastured or stabled with the horse.
- Depending upon the condition of your horse's teeth, more than one visit from your equine practitioner may be required to get the mouth in prime working order.
- It is important to catch dental problems early. Waiting too long may increase the difficulty of correcting certain conditions or may even make correction impossible.