Dental Exam; More Than Floating Teeth

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R. Brad Tanner, DVM

So often as a horse owner we go through their annual health checklist without pause for what’s being done. Deworming, vaccinations, teeth floating all are important. Equally important is finding the value in what is being provided to your horses. Not all dewormers and vaccines are the same; recommendations can vary widely based on geography, age, sex, use, and travel plans of your horse.

The same can be said of floating teeth. Why do we call and ask for the teeth to be floated? Is it because we are feeling resistance in the bit of a riding horse? Is it because we are seeing grain fall out of the mouth at feeding time? Maybe it is incorporated into our annual checklist and the responsible thing to do. Regardless the reason, it is important to have expectations of your dental care provider at the time of floating.


As an owner, please keep in mind that your adult horse has between 36-44 teeth dependent on breed-type and sex. We can easily lift the lips and visualize the 12 incisors (Fig 1) and 4 canines (if present) with minimal effort but this accounts for only 1/3 of the teeth and none of these are responsible for the heavy mashing and grinding that must take place before the grass, hay, or grain is processed and swallowed.


A full mouth speculum, bright focused light and sedation are all necessary to perform a thorough and complete oral/dental exam. With the aid of these three things your veterinarian can properly visualize not only the teeth but also, ALL of the structures of the mouth (Fig 2). Your veterinarian may additionally choose to use a dental mirror, periodontal probe and explorer just as your own dentist would use. By performing a proper oral/dental exam your veterinarian can identify tumors, cheek ulcers, loose teeth, retained caps (baby teeth), tooth decay (Fig 1), gum disease, packing of hay between teeth and much more. Early detection of abnormalities is key to reversal of many disease processes and crucial in assuring that your horse has a healthy mouth for many years to come.


For an idea of abnormalities that affect different aged horses please reference our client education articles, "Dental Concerns For The Geriatric Horse” or "Dental Concerns For the Young Horse”


Fig 1 Incisors, Notice the stained tooth, the enamel is not present.

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Fig 2 Open Wide, Full mouth view

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