Story by: Jackie Bellamy
“In most cases you will find if they like performing dentistry, they will like talking about it,” says Dr. Abe Aho DVM when answering what to ask your veterinarian about dental procedures.
Aho grew up around horses, following in his dad’s footsteps by becoming a veterinarian. With training from Dr. Tom Johnson and Dr. Travis Henry, he began learning the art of equine dentistry and started power floating teeth in 2009. Knowing the direct relation of maintaining a healthy set of teeth to the horse’s longevity, Aho is more than happy to inform horse owners about the importance of taking care of teeth.
Horse owners should speak candidly with their vet regarding their continuing education and how long they have been practicing in the field of dentistry. That may include lectures/seminars from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) or mentoring under an experienced veterinarian in the field. Especially if a particular procedure is involved – it is not unfair to ask how many times they have performed it in the past. The horse’s advocate should feel confident in the veterinarian performing dental work on their horse.
It is highly recommended to have a dental examination at least once a year. Aho explains, you may need to have the teeth floated every 4 months – two years depending on the individual and other factors such as existing dental pathology, work load, age, and breed. Generally Aho suggests every six months is a typical period to book for performance horses. “It is important to be proactive in dentistry and identify problems early on,” says Aho. “The longer the horse has teeth, the longer they are eating hay and grass and the longer they live.”
A few ways to know your horse is in need of a dental check-up is if you detect swelling or your horses breath becomes foul indicating it may have decaying tissue. Adverse reaction to rein aids can signal soreness in the mouth. Quidding is another indicator that there is a problem. Aho explains this as a horse’s clever way of protecting itself from ulcerated cheek tissue. Just as a human dentist will pack gauze between your teeth and cheek after you have had work done so you do not bite your cheek – the horse will chew their food up into a ball and position it in attempts to minimize the pain of a sharp, pointed tooth cutting into their cheek.
A horse owner can feel for sensitivity by running their hand along the horse’s jawline. This can be done without opening the horse’s mouth and without running the risk of having your digits crushed. Aho explains that the upper arcades of teeth are wider than the lower arcades and therefore a bit of a ledge or overhang is palpable. An observant horse owner will notice an abnormal reaction or pain response if they press ulcerated cheek tissue against a point. Pinpointing the exact location of the aggravation is not as important as picking up on the reaction.
When the veterinarian comes out to perform a float; the owner can expect they will perform a physical examination (including checking heart rate), to ensure the horse is a good candidate for sedation. After listening to the owner’s questions and looking in the mouth a fair assessment should be given based on what they see and their expertise. Aho points out a speculum to hold the horse’s mouth open is an important instrument in his kit in order to do a good job. As far as the power instruments versus hand instruments debate, Aho states, “Any instrument is only as good as the operator.” Aho uses his power floats to do a more precise job without exerting excruciating effort. Aho also finds this precision cuts down on procedure time and trauma to the jaw and oral cavity that can occur when raking hand tools along the teeth.
There are odd occasions when a power float will scrape the gum line and cause bleeding but it is not common. Typically, if there is bleeding or soreness after floating it can be indicative of an underlying problem and the veterinarian should be informed. Aho goes on to explain; much like a horse should not be lame after a farrier visit unless it was a poor job or there is an underlying problem – a horse should be robust after floating of the teeth and it should not affect their eating. As with humans some horses are more sensitive and a dental visit can initially leave them a little hypersensitive but not enough to impact their appetite. Aho cautions, “If there is bleeding or pain afterward, that is an immediate call back to the veterinarian”. This could be a sign of a problem such as a smoldering cracked tooth. If it was a slip with a tool, the veterinarian should be informing the client. Horses can typically return to normal work the next day after a routine float. More invasive work may require a longer period of rest post operatively.
When asked about feeding cracked corn to horses to help minimize points, Aho responded by comparing horses eating plenty of roughage, living in the wild. Simply put, they don’t live as long. Relying on coarse feed to knock points off would be a random act. Much like the dentist who works without a speculum – you cannot know exactly what you are dealing with without taking a good look and feel inside the mouth. Good dental care is one of the reasons horses in captivity live longer healthier lives.
A balanced mouth contributes to a better riding experience. Identifying underlying problems and maintaining appropriate tooth mass can reduce the chances of tooth loss necessitating the purchase of specialty feeds later in life. Stay on top of your horse’s dental care to help promote a long and healthy life for your equine partner.
Remember to ask your veterinarian their experience and training for practicing dentistry