Equine Dentistry – Diastemata
Having just completed the dentistry part of my certificate I wanted to highlight some of the more interesting conditions we see in horses mouths.
Horses have 24 cheek teeth split into four groups of 6 in each side of the top jaw and bottom jaw. These 6 teeth should function as one grinding unit. They are very closely packed together and the front and back tooth of each row are angled slightly so that they keep the other teeth tight togethr. Diastema is the word we use to describe a gap between adjacent teeth. There are two basic types; “valve” or ” open”.
An open diastema is one that is the same width at the top and the bottom, whilst a valve type diastema has a narrow opening at the top and a bigger gap at gum level. The valve type diastema more commonly causes problems because the food material gets compressed in there and stuck. As the food starts to ferment and break down it causes an infection in the gum that we call periodontal disease. This is extremely painful for the horse and left untreated the infection can eat away, first at the gum and eventually into the jaw bone.
The most common sign seen with cheek teeth diastema is quidding. This is where the horse spits out half chewed mouthfuls of grass. If your horse is doing this you should always get it investigated promptly.
There are various different ways of treating diastema. The first approach is to flush out the gap with a special instrument to remove all the food material. We can then place dental impression putty into this gap to allow the gum time to heal and prevent further trapping of food. We normally combine this treatment with rasping the opposing tooth to prevent the continued compressing of more food into the gap.
In certain other cases the treatment actually involves widening the gap with a mechanical file. This process allows the food to move into and out of the gap more easily, but there is a risk of damaging the pulp of the tooth when this is done.
In extreme cases we sometimes have to remove one of the teeth. This creates a much bigger gap and the horse is able to flick the food out and stop it getting trapped in there.
We know that this is one of the most painful dental conditions a horse can get and the signs displayed might include
difficulty riding, particularly on one rein, difficulty in maintaining a consistent contact, a change in their behaviour when ridden, difficulty eating, quidding and bad breath. If your horse is doing any of these things, don’t forget to check its mouth as part of the process of elimination.