Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bite me: Harv's dental dilemma

Every tooth in a man's head is more valuable than a diamond
                            Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605

This quote (one of my favorites from Cervantes' Don Quixote) is more true of horses than of people. They live by their molars and their health depends on their ability to grind. So it alarmed me to note that Harv, who used to tear into hay with great gusto, has not been eating well. He takes tiny pieces,  slowly, and with modest success. 

I  had a dentist out. Unfortunately he came during Bob's emergency hospitalization, and  I couldn't speak to him directly.  I heard second-hand that Harv's teeth were worn down and that he would likely have trouble eating coarse hay. What? He's only 23. I started to think back to his past dental care -- he's gotten regular care, but....

 There are a number of dentists used at my barn.  I confess that I've signed up with whoever happens to be coming out, so in the last five years he's had about 3-4 dentists. Last week, when my vet came to give Riley his shots for Devon, I had her take a look at Harv. 

My vet's assessment
Harv's jaw is uneven. His lower molars don't meet any more; they're down to the gumline. The upper molars are taller and have more occlusion, which means that they have a better grinding surface. With this uneven bite  he can only use the back molars. It's possible this is just the way his teeth are wearing down, but Harv's checkered past with regard to dental professionals could be a contributing factor.

"3 out of 4 dentists recommend NOT over-filing"
In talking to an area horse professional, I learned that most of Harv's past dentists have good reps -- but one has, or had, a reputation for removing a lot of tooth.  He's not incompetent, it's the way he works. It seems that some performance horse dentists adhere to a philosophy that it is beneficial to file teeth aggressively. The rationale is that if horses can move their mouths easily from side to side, they will be more comfortable in the bridle. This practice is falling out of favor, for good reasons. Horses managed this way have eating problems, and in some cases their teeth break off or into pieces. Was Harv filed too aggressively? I don't know. Whether through normal wear and aging, or through dental exuberance, he's having trouble eating.
I'm not interested in dentist-bashing, especially when there is no real way of knowing what happened.  But a word of advice -- do a little research on your dentist. Ask around.

So what about Harv? What are my options? Find out in an upcoming post...


  1. Steamed hay is good for horses that have troubling eating regular hay. Here is a method that I found with a Google search.

    "Just shove hay in empty bin (give it a good shake out first to seperate it otherwise the steam wont be able to penetrate it, wack in a kettle full of boiling water and put the lid on. Its not about volume of water that you add its about the heat of the water to get the steam effect.

    If you dont have a dustbin to use then just use an old shavings bag, feed bags tend to be pretty useless as the steam gets out of the holes in the bottom of the bag which are put in to prevent small animals/kids from suffocating if they decide to hide in them Do the top of the bag up with bailing twine to stop the steam escaping.

    You only need to leave it steaming for about 10 mins as the water will soon have gone cold."

    I have used the bag method and it works. If you can afford a machine, go for it!!!

  2. I'm anxiously awaiting Part 2!

  3. Oh, gee, one more thing to worry about. So far my old horses have been OK, although PJ had a tooth infection that required an extraction. He seemed to be able to eat just fine, so maybe my dentists are not too aggressive.

    Soaked pellets are good feed as are soaked nay cubes. I will be interested to see what you come up with for Harv.

  4. It could also just be that Harv doesn't have good teeth.
    My horse is 19, parents bought him for me 8 years ago, always used an equine dentist at the vet school so he has really good vets working on his mouth. Unfortunately, he just has bad teeth-- his jaws are offset by a few millimeters which means he REALLY doesn't grind evenly, he's mysteriously missing a tooth, and despite wonderful care, has developed two abscesses right under his teeth.
    He's just not dentally blessed, and I've accepted that I just have to get his teeth done every 6 months to keep him healthy

  5. Great post! My current vet doesn't use a power float because she says it removes too much tooth and doesn't give her enough control over the process of balancing the jaw. I'm feeling better than ever about her work after reading about your dental woes.

    Have you tried timothy hay cubes soaked in water? I use them for my gelding to get him to drink more water in winter. They melt into a mushy consistency that seems to please him greatly even though he's got awesome choppers. The cubes smell like yummy hay, and the only downside, in my opinion, is that my horse has a "hay mustache" (and beard) that's really quite appalling. I use a lot of baby wipes during the winter!

  6. All equine dentists are not alike! My horse's previous dentist did not use the speculum, and despite his reassurances, my horse developed large hooks on his lower rear molars. The dentist just could not reach them. Our new dentist has a wonderful collection of tools, outstanding knowledge, and a reputation to match.

  7. I have an older guy who also has trouble eating hay. In my area (central Texas), I get something called Wendland's One and Only, which is an extruded complete feed. You can feed it free choice (REALLY, you can) or several times daily like a regular feed, and it just sort of dissolves when they take a bite, so no soaking on your part or chewing on their part is necessary. It looks a little odd, like large dog kibble, but my boy does really well on it. I think there are a couple of other companies that make a similar product if you're interested, since Wendland's isn't available everywhere. Their site (it's not fancy) is available here.

  8. At first, I was on-board with the whole power floating method. But now that I've been doing a bit of research, I'm not too keen on it. It can take off too much tooth -- and once it's gone, there's no getting it back. So, when I get another horse, it's back to the old-school manual file and bucket of water!

  9. A good dentist should look at the teeth when the horse's head is down in the grazing position. He'll have to get on his knees. This way one can see exactly how the jaw is lining up when the horse is chewing! The dentist I use doesn't use power tools but i don't think that makes a huge diff, as long as those using power don't do too much. My dentist's philosophy is: Fix the front teeth and the back will follow naturally(if it's not already screwed up by previous work). Very Rarely does he file molars, and in my 28 yr old horse, he has left some hooks and points so my horse can still chew. As long as the points aren't interfering with the cheek or tongue, older horses that have worn down molars may need the points to grind. Their jaws are compensating for the lack of tooth. Less is more! Molars stop erupting at some point. If you keep grinding them they don't come back.

  10. Any power tool may be used incorrectly in the wrong hands. I happen to have a top notch dentist who actually understands spatial relations and does a spectacular job with power floats and hand floats. She is also a fantastic educator and is routinely called in for rescue cases and high level performances horses alike all over florida because of her skill in finding true alignment, bite and grind.

    I think it's also very important to find someone who has actually been trained as an equine dentist rather than just a vet who had a 2-week course in "how to fix the worst things you see" during vet school. There's a lot more to it than any vet school I know of actually covers!

    There is no way to reach the back teeth without the speculum; and a simple understanding of physiology will tell you that that back teeth are not going to "follow" the front... Jill, is your vet expecting/wanting the back teeth to crack and chip instead of doing the work himself? I understand that they "need something to chew with", but at that point I'd feel that it's more important to smooth out the hooks to prevent root damage from breaking the hook off and feed them just soft food than risk needing an abscessed molar extracted in a year or so.

    My lovely, old westphalian mare had a negligent vet who did her dentistry when I got her - took my dentist two different trips, 6 months apart, to fix all of the damage. Now she grinds like a champion, and the remaining wave in her upper molars from overly long bottom molars will eventually fill in somewhat.

  11. We had a problem with a dentist who did aggressive over-floating with power floats - it caused the older horses a lot of problems. We now have a wonderful dentist who uses only hand tools and is very careful to not overdo it with the older horses who don't grow much tooth.

    We've had very good luck with several of our older horses - including one who's in his early 30s and only has a few teeth left - with soaked beet pulp and soaked hay cubes - he's able to eat those with relish and is maintaining a really good weight.

  12. Emily makes a good point - horses don't all have the same quality of teeth. My childhood shetland pony had to be put down at 24 because his teeth had worn down completely. He couldn't even chew soft green grass anymore. For a year I fed him special meals like nices mashes, steamed hay.
    Every other pony I've known had teeth of steel.


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