Equine Teeth Problems

Dental problems may result from trauma, infections, toxins, genetics, anatomic and developmental anomalies, cancer, malnutrition, and various metabolic, immune, inflammatory, degenerative diseases.

However, the most common teeth problems are:

  • Malocclusions
  • Sharp Edges (Points)

More than 50 % of kept horses, mules and donkeys reveal significant malocclusions and/or points. This percent is consistent on exams and necropsies and when studied at slaughter. Many believe this high incidence in our equines is due to eating softer feeds, limited grazing, and failure to correct the loss of natural wear.

With less abrasive feed and diminished mouth movement, teeth grind down unevenly. This creates high and low teeth with reverse lows and highs on the opposing teeth. Upper and lower teeth batteries then mesh like jig saw puzzles. This locking action further reduces normal motion, creating a vicious cycle of more abnormal wear. The end stage are horses champing feebly up and down with no sideway or front and back movement.

The following photos are of a horses skull showing multiple missing teeth, bone infection and extreme malocclusions.

New Picture (9)      New Picture (10)

The following drawings of actual malocclusions are reproduced courtesy of Dr. Thomas J Johnson, Advanced Equine Dentistry and photos by Stephanie Carpenter.

You will appreciate this normal mouth:

Our companion horses require more care of their teeth than feral horses. More than half of our horses, donkeys and mules reveal abnormal teeth on examination inside of the mouth. This means they show some level of malocclusions along with sharp edges (points) which damage the tongue and cheeks.

ulcer     ulcers

These photos fail to show how knife-like these edges become. I get a better idea by actually testing the teeth with my finger. You feel how they lacerate the surrounding soft tissue.

Here is a resin cast of a thoroughbred with serious but correctable malocclusions. His hooks, waves and shear mouth profoundly limit movement of the jaw. The edges of his cheek teeth are honed sharp. Life, eating and being ridden were probably miserable for him. His rider would have little pleasure or success trying to communicate through this horse’s mouth.

New Picture    New Picture (2)   New Picture (1)

Recognizing Dental Problems – not so easy!

Obvious clues:

  • Foul odor from the mouth
  • Facial swelling or deformity
  • Blood or pus draining near teeth
  • Pain
  • Dropping partially chewed feed
  • Weight loss

Other signs:

  • Distraction from training or performance
  • Behavior changes
  • Fighting the bit
  • Throwing the head
  • Rearing when the reins are pulled
  • Refusing to stop
  • Discomfort
  • Needing more feed to maintain weight
  • Diminished lateral and forward movement of jaw
  • Locked teeth
  • Worn out teeth
  • Loss of teeth or fractured teeth
  • Shortened life

Skilled horse people may realize their horse has dental problems. They may not. The clues range from obvious to subtle to none. Surprisingly often the equine hides all signs of even serious dental pathology. Only a visual or manual exam all the way to the last molars (and that is way back there!) will reveal the health of the mouth.