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What is Periodontal Disease?

Dental health in horses is often neglected due to a lack of owner awareness and education. When it comes to their teeth and gums, horses require ongoing care just as humans and other animals. It is not commonly known that, unlike humans who have a fixed shape and size to their teeth, horses have dynamic teeth (the teeth change size and shape) and require upkeep such as filing, or smoothing of the points to better enable even chewing. Without any dental care, many horses suffer from a variety of conditions and disease, namely periodontitis, or periodontal disease. Periodontal simply means around or near the tooth. Periodontics is the study of the periodontium, which includes the gingiva (soft tissue), periodontal ligament, alveolar bone, and cementum. 

Periodontal disease is a category of inflammatory conditions that affects the periodontium, the tissues that surround and anchor the teeth within the jaw bone. If left untreated, some horses will lose teeth, experience bleeding and swollen gums, and get food stuck between the teeth, which can lead to localized or systemic infection. Other teeth may lean too far toward the cheek, become permanently misaligned and tear away at the skin. Additionally, painful chewing may lead to poor nutrition and rapid weight loss. Just as with humans, dental care will ensure that periodontal disease does not develop, or else does not worsen to the point of illness. 

Periodontal disease is common in equids, particularly horses. Sixty-percent of horses will develop a severe enough case of periodontal disease that dental and medical intervention will be needed. Horses over the age of 12 usually have some kind of tooth or gum problem that needs to be addressed in order to stave off infection, decay and loss.

In one research study, a veterinary dentist examined the skulls of 22 horses, and found that 16 had some type of periodontal disease. None of the horses in the study had any pre-mortem dental care.  In all cases, there was some finding of residual bacteria, which is commonly found in instances of human periodontal disease. This was surprising, as equine periodontal disease had always been ascribed to the mechanics of a horse’s mouth. Overall, more research must take place in order to understand dental disease in equines so that prevention and treatment can improve. Pain and infection in the gums and teeth of a horse result in a lesser quality of life, and may also cause a shortened life span.

Periodontal disease in horses is a category of inflammatory conditions that affects the tissues that surround and anchor the teeth within the jaw bone.

Symptoms of Periodontal Disease in Horses

  • Extra salivation
  • Red, swollen gums
  • Ulcers on the gums
  • Painful mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Loss of body condition
  • Wasting


Causes of Periodontal Disease in Horses

Gingivitis is considered to be one of the most common causes of periodontal disease in horses. Other causes include genetics, systemic disease (in which the periodontal problem is secondary), poor diet, and malocclusion (the imperfect positioning of teeth).



Diagnosis of Periodontal Disease in Horses

Periodontal disease in horses is recognizable based on condition of the gums, tartar buildup, decay, foul odor and tooth loss. The practitioner should perform blood work to determine if there is systemic disease.  Often, the veterinarian will provide the horse with a mild sedative in order to perform an extensive exam.



Treatment of Periodontal Disease in Horses

If a horse develops periodontal disease, a veterinary dentist will examine the teeth in case extraction or realignment is necessary. The extent of bone loss, if any, should be evaluated. If the horse has acute symptoms such as inflammation and bleeding, a course of antibiotics will be prescribed to combat infection. Owners who are concerned about dental problems in their horse should book a veterinary examination. In all horses, prevention is the best kind of care.

Antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are used throughout the course of initial treatment. Current treatments include the equine dental system, a new device that performs tooth cleaning and restoration in horses. Simple extractions may be performed if a tooth is beyond repair.



Recovery of Periodontal Disease in Horses

Horse owners are recommended to begin providing dental care and treatment for the horse at a young age. Filing or smoothing of chewing surfaces is an example of early care. When horses get hay and other food stuck between adjoining teeth, it’s important to remove the food by simple picking (if the horse will allow it), or rinsing. If the horse appears to have overly crowded or overlapping teeth, a veterinary dentist is able to widen the spaces between adjoining teeth so food packing does not occur. Veterinary dentists recommend the horse be examined for any signs of disease once yearly. Watch for any changes in the horse’s chewing patterns.



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