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What are Dental Caries?

Fortunately, while caries can be painful and serious for your horse, they are also relatively uncommon due to how much chewing horses do. This disease comes from your horse’s saliva become neutralized and resulting in tooth decay. This condition may resemble multiple other dental concerns your horse may experience. Some horses will not exhibit symptoms while others can experience pain, loss of appetite and show a change in behavior. The diagnosis may be done by simple examination or may require more extensive imaging, such as in the form of x-rays or CT scan. Treatment of dental caries is essential in order to eliminate secondary issues such as sinus infection or complications with the root of the tooth.

Dental caries in your horse refers to tooth decay. The cause is an imbalance of the pH of your horse’s mouth resulting in plaque buildup. This condition can create secondary problems for your horse if left unchecked.

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Symptoms of Dental Caries in Horses

These symptoms may not always appear and may be to different degrees depending on how severe your horse’s condition is.

  • No symptoms – Your horse may not exhibit any signs or symptoms of discomfort or concern making this disease difficult to identify
  • Ulceration
  • Hypersalivation – You may begin to notice that your horse has an excessive amount of saliva in his mouth with no explanation
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Dropping of food – When chewing, your horse may drop his food or have difficulty keeping feed in his mouth
  • Bad breath – You may notice your horse has foul, unpleasant or very bad smelling breath 
  • Runny nose or discharge

Types

There are 2 types of caries that your horse may experience: 

Equine Infundibular Caries

  •  Seen in up to 80% of all caries cases
  • This is where your horse’s enamel does not fill completely, resulting in defective teeth
  • Food and bacteria can get stuck in these areas of the teeth resulting in a higher risk of caries
  • Seen in mid to upper cheek teeth
  • Once the process has begun, it only gets worse as food and bacteria continue wearing at the teeth resulting in more healthy tissue being impacted
  • It can escalate to a point of teeth fracturing
  • This can introduce bacteria into the root of the tooth causing even more problems 

Generalized (Peripheral) Cemental Caries

  • Loss of the peripheral cement leads to periodontal disease
  • Increase in tooth wear
  • Increase risk of fracture
  • This may be a result of improper care of your horse’s teeth

Causes of Dental Caries in Horses

  • Diet – Diets that are high in simple carbohydrates have been found to increase the risk of your horse developing caries
  • Eating time – If your horse has limited time to eat his food this also increases his risk of developing caries
  • pH of diet – When this fine balance is off, your horse’s risk increases 
  • Variation amongst each individual horse – It appears that some horses are at an increased risk of developing caries 
  • Oral bacteria – Each horse has their own individual oral bacteria environment which can play a role in their risk of developing caries 
  • Enamel wear – This results from abnormal wear and tooth grinding/chewing of your horse’s teeth

Diagnosis of Dental Caries in Horses

If you suspect that your horse may be having trouble with his teeth, a veterinarian visit is required. Your veterinarian may want to perform a physical examination of your horse to ensure there are no other concerns or issues running concurrently with the dental problems. He may then perform an oral exam which will need to be done while your horse is sedated for the safety of both your horse and the veterinarian. Your veterinarian will want to check your horse’s teeth, gums, the roof of his mouth, soft palate, and tongue. This thorough exam will allow your veterinarian to identify the root cause of your horse’s problems. He will check for the following possibilities:

  • Gum disease
  • Ulceration on the cheeks, gums, or tongue
  • Infection (root, sinus, or bone)
  • Wear on the teeth
  • Fracture of the teeth
  • Abscess
  • Pain

If necessary your veterinarian may want to perform X-rays or CT scans for an evaluation or detailed view. Your veterinarian may suggest an equine dentist be involved if the situation warrants it.

Treatment of Dental Caries in Horses

Treatment options will be discussed with your veterinarian and may include extractions or surgical procedures. Extraction of a tooth will be done in the event there is too large of an infection that cannot be remedied otherwise. This is typically seen in older horses and sometimes it happens due to not having enough tissue left to keep the tooth secure in the gums. 

Dental surgical procedures may include:

  • Cleaning the cavity and using dental filling material to close the area
  • Debridement of tissue
  • Extraction of teeth

Dealing with a dental carie is always advised in the early stages of the disease. Saving the tooth is preferred, but if in advanced cases of cavities tooth wear or ulceration become problematic, then extraction is the best solution.The spread of bacteria and damage to tissue is a definite risk if a carie is left untreated.

Recovery of Dental Caries in Horses

The prognosis for recovery is good if the condition is treated correctly. There are many preventive measures that can be taken to avoid further dental concerns. One thing that is important and will benefit your horse in the long run is an annual dental examination. This will help to find issues before they become too big to correct. Providing your horse with a balanced diet of hay, making sure he does not go long periods of time without roughage and decreasing his simple carb intake will all benefit him greatly.