Signs of dental dilemmas in your horse and the importance of healthy teeth

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Without healthy teeth horses can have difficulty eating, so ensuring they’re in good condition is vital.

Horses have evolved to be grazing herbivores, munching on grasses and forage for up to 18 hours a day.

It’s important that they chew and grind their food properly to allow the gut to perform at top efficiency during the digestion process.

By maximising surface area to volume ratio, the gut can use digestive enzymes and bacterial fermentation to maximise the nutrients gained from each mouthful. 

The daily grind

The rate of wear in horse’s teeth is influenced by diet, with incisors wearing faster than cheek teeth due to different types and strengths of enamel.

On average a horse’s teeth will wear between 2mm and 3mm a year.

The chewing cycle is a complicated process and, as such, any dental disease that may interrupt the cycle is significant and should be addressed as early as possible. 

Failures in the chewing cycle due to dental pain can cause weight loss, choke, colic and diarrhoea.

Signs of dental trouble

  • Quidding (dropping food)

  • Refusing to eat

  • Hamster-like pouching of food in cheeks

  • Facial swellings

  • Discharge and/or smell from the nostrils

  • Halitosis (smelly breath)

  • Weight loss

  • Resistance to the bridle, evading the bit and refusal to go forward

  • Changes in behaviour due to pain (for example, grumpiness, bucking, rearing or napping when ridden)

  • Headshaking

  • Colic

  • Choke

Remarkably, despite severe dental disease some horses may show none of the above signs. Therefore, it is important horses receive a dental examination at least annually, performed by a suitable professional.

The focus of the routine dental check-up is on general health, hygiene and prevention – aiming to spot potential problems early and deal with them.

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Treating arthritis in your horse

It's one of the most common causes of lameness affecting many horses as they age. Vet Matthew Tong explains the latest on this debilitating disease.

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The best way to prevent and manage arthritis is to ensure your horse's body is working as efficiently as it can. 

Regular farrier visits to balance the feet and help prevent uneven loading on the joints, keeping your horse at his ideal weight, and a regular, sensible exercise plan will all go a long way to helping your horse's joints work as nature intended. 

It's also a good idea to make sure your horse is always well warmed up before strenuous exercise and well cooled down after to help protect his joints from excess wear and tear.

A good quality joint supplement that boosts your horse's levels of glucosamine and chondroitin (both help to build healthy cartilage) is recommended, and your vet will be able to advise you as to which product to invest in. 

While many people reach for this kind of supplement only when stiffness becomes an issue, it may be more beneficial to give it long-term, from a younger age, especially if your horse is conformationally challenged. For example, if he's pigeon-toed. 

Arthritis: The key facts

  • Arthritis is one of the leading causes of lameness in the UK, and is believed to be responsible for 60% of all cases. 
  • Today's more sophisticated diagnosis tools include nuclear scintigraphy (better known as a bone scan) a radioactive substance that is injected that 'binds' to areas of active bony change within a joint. 
  • These can then be picked up hot spots by a scanner. An MRI scan - which can also be used on the horse's lower leg - can also be used to detect changes in the joint and it's surrounding soft tissue.
  • Riding too fast or hard over poor terrain - be it hard, soft or boggy - can increase the chances of joint trauma and in turn predispose the joint to arthritis. So it's vital you ride with care.