We couldn't let pet dental health month go by without having a bit of a discussion about horse teeth. When it comes to horses dental health, folks tend to fall in to one of a few distinct groups. You either routinely have your horse done like clock work every 6 or 12 months, or you may have them done every few years, or you only have them looked at when you feel there might be a problem, or you never have them done.
Now there are no judgements here regardless of which camp you fall in to, everyone is welcome to manage their horses the way the best suits them. The purpose of today's blog post is to hopefully illustrate why we need to pay at least a little attention to our horses mouths. One of the most often quoted justifications for horses not receiving dental care is that 'horses in the wild don't get it and they do just fine'. So lets take a look at the differences between our domesticated and wild equines.
Most horses that are used for pleasure in this country spend at least some time stabled, and time spent outside may be in a relatively small space with little available natural grazing and likely additional forage provided. When stabled, forage is supplemented either on the ground or in a rack/net (I realize I am generalizing, individual circumstances will vary). Horses living in the wild have access to multiple forage types 24 hours a day and almost always on the ground.
Do a little experiment for me. Sit up straight a look dead ahead. Keep your jaw relaxed and pay attention to how your lower jaw meets your upper jaw. Now drop your chin to your chest. Did you notice what happened to your lower jaw? Did your lower jaw slide forward in relation to your upper jaw? Now imagine you spent 18 hours a day chewing, if your jaws are not lined up in the manner to which you have evolved, the wear pattern is not going to be appropriate for long term oral health.
The modern managed environment of the domestic horse has changed the way they chew. They are fed a homologous forage every day often with the head in a elevated position. Add to this the requirements of us as riders to have them respond appropriately to aids given through their mouths and the need for dental management becomes clearer. A horses life span is often dictated by the lifespan of it's teeth. The more care we take of them, the fewer issues may occur with the horse as it ages.
This is not to say that horses in the wild do not have issues. The reasons we don't see it is because 1: No one is looking in their mouths and 2: If they have a problem, they die. If a wild animal has dental disease significant enough to cause disruption to the amount of food they can effectively consume they simply will not survive. Obviously that also means they can no longer reproduce and pass on any genetic predisposition which may have lead to the problem in the first place. Natural selection of wild populations weeds out those with problem dentition. Modern breeding strategies seek to 'improve' many facets of the horse but oral anatomy and health are not among them.
This is the part where I advocate for, at the very least, an oral exam being part of an annual check up. Many horses have good mouths and do not suffer unduly from their domestic lifestyle. Many horses will have significant dental issues but exhibit virtually no external signs - ever had an infected tooth or oral ulcer? Did you just avoid chewing on that particular area of your mouth? Now this is an acceptable strategy when you spend 10 minutes 3 times a day eating (plus snacks), but when you spend more hours a day eating than anything else it becomes a major welfare concern. Not only that, a recently published study demonstrated that half of tooth root infections were diagnosed at routine oral exams, either owners were unaware of any problems, or did not associate changes in behavior with dental disease.
With that in mind, our friends at Zoetis are conducting a survey into horse behavior and dental disease. Participate and you could win $1000!!! Click here to enter.
So what is the take home message? The teeth of domestic horses, living domestic lives will be subjected to forces that are different from their wild counterparts. This may or may not cause them problems. The only way to know for sure is to have an oral exam.