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equine dentistry re. post from terre...short......and LONG

Sarah Metcalf DVM smetcalf@moscow .com

<<<Re: dentistry--do you think the full check-up (with sedation, speculum,
etc) is necessary for ALL horses, or only those with some indication of a

Yes. All horses. It is a myth that they will always give indications of a

 <<<To put it another way, should we assume that it is "normal" for horses
to need dentistry, or is it to be used to correct a 'pathology'

Yes and yes. It is "typical" (to the degree of being a rule) for domestic
horses to develop sharp points. Whether this "needs" to be corrected
depends on what we want for our horses.  I think if the HORSE could vote,
it would opt for a comfortable mouth.

The other common problems (waves, steps, hooks etc.) vary more widely from
horse to horse. Just like people, some horses have naturally good teeth,
and go for years with no dental work with only minor abnormalities
developing. Others have really bad stuff starting at the age of eight

It is tempting to get into the interesting topic of what is "natural",
"normal", and "pathological".( Nature will normally tolerate a degree of


OKAY. This is my personal point of view and opinion.

1. Many horses who exhibit no symptoms whatsoever (that the owner can
perceive) have extremely sharp points that are causing ulcers and small
lacerations on their cheeks.

This is so common in 3 year olds that I like to use them as demonstration
horses: Put your hand in there and it will feel like a mouthful of
thumbtacks. You can SEE the sores in the mouth. This is not something
where the owner has to trust a vet's word for it.

But, please try to don't feel your horse's teeth without a speculum in
place to protect your fingers. They don't mean to bite, but the chewing
reflex is automatic. It is possible to palpate the outside edges of the
upper 6's (the cheek teeth are numbered 6 through 11 from front to back)
fairly safely, but almost invariably the worst points are back at the
10' is not possible to see or feel this area during a casual exam.

Lacking evidence to the contrary, I would assume that a horse's sensory
nervous system is similar to ours, and that these sores are painful. And
yet the individual horse is may be fat and cheerful. Why? A forgiving
metabolism...and no choice in the matter. Animals bear things because they
MUST; what else can they do?( Dogs come into the clinic (the owner is
wondering why the breath is bad) with a mouthful of rotten teeth that
would send a person screaming to the dentist or becoming suicidal....and
yet the dog has just gone on, day after day. Funny how the owner
reports... a week after the bad teeth are extracted...."Amazing, old Fido
is acting just like a puppy again!")

We choose to relieve this pain for two reasons: first, we would simply
like our horse to be comfortable. Second, performance horses usually work
better when all factors are just right. I recently talked to a person who
"ropes seriously": when his horse comes out of the box, that horse needs
to have it's entire attention on the job at hand, no nagging little
distractions. He called me initially with questions about electrolytes,
and "by-the-way" he'd been hearing about this dentistry stuff from his
fellow competitors.

2. Some individuals with horrific problems that go way beyond  sharp
points do not display overt symptoms. In one of my February 4 postings (I
was sure it would be my last ; this has got to be a ten-year quota for
me!!), I included "The Story of Hank". This horse, at the time I saw him,
was not exhibiting obvious symptoms to the owner. While not fat, his body
condition was acceptable and he was being maintained on grass hay. His
dental problems were in the back 1/3 of his mouth and could not be seen or
felt easily.

Perhaps I have not written up the story in a way that adequately conveys
what was going on.  Maybe a person had to see it. It gave me nightmares
for a week.

And what it left me with is this: I look out at a field of 100 horses, and
I have no way of knowing which one has Hank's problem.

NOW. Once someone HAS looked, and done a COMPLETE exam (every tooth!),
then you kind of know where you stand. Yesterday I did the teeth of two
horses, ages 13 and 19, who had never had dental work. Both had sharp
points and moderate waves. Both have intrinsically excellent teeth (it is
probably genetic, like good feet), naturally well-balanced arcades, no
teeth missing or really excessively worn. So.....if this owner does not
have me back for three years, I am not going to lose sleep over it because
I know they both made it this far without serious problems. But we
wouldn't have known that for sure, would we? without having taken a good

3. Since most domestic horses re-develop sharp points to at least a
moderate degree within 12 months, my plan for my two 5-year-olds is that
their teeth will have maintenance dental work once yearly for as long as I
am their caretaker. This way I know that a) they have comfortable mouths
and b) serious waves, steps, and hooks will never be allowed to develop.
Pretty simple, pretty routine.

4. Almost all horses who show "symptoms" of dental problems (weight loss,
masseter muscle atrophy, abnormal chewing, pain , bad behavior, poor
performance) have been experiencing those problems for a long time before
they actually begin to manifest symptoms. I have almost come to dread it,
or at least feel a little sad, when asked to see an horse in it's late
teens  who has started losing weight or chewing slowly and with
difficulty, because I can pretty well predict we'll find a significant
long-standing problem; while these problems can always be helped, it is
usually too late to really reverse it. Makes me wish we'd started a few
years earlier.

 There ARE exceptions to this: Irma, the Princess, tells her owner at
about 10 months after floating that the little rough edges are beginning
to bug her again. She picks up a mouthful of hay, spits it out, throws it
on the ground, stalks off, then repeats the performance. Her owner brought
me a video of this the first time it happened, saying "This is NOT the
Irma that I know! Irma is normally an EXCELLENT  eater." So, off we go to
the dentistry stall, and sure enough, Irma has a microscopic rash forming
on the inside of her cheeks. I can never quite believe that floating will
do the trick, but it does.....for another ten months. This is a horse who
also promptly started bucking her owner off when a new saddle wasn't quite
right. If the horse could only verbalize, Martha and I could honor her
requests more quickly! Irma works hard for Martha, doing some pretty
high-level riding, and in return she expects to be TREATED EXCELLENTLY.

Again, interested persons are encouraged to check out Dr. Tom Allen's web
site at for more stories, information, and
entertainment complete with photographs.

Sarah Metcalf DVM

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