Is your horse trying to tell you his teeth hurt?

Difficulty eating, bit evasions and antisocial behavior are signs of dental pain in horses that are commonly overlooked or misinterpreted.

Owners often overlook difficulty eating, bit evasions, antisocial behavior and other signs of dental pain in horses, according to a study from Finland.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki surveyed the owners of 47 horses who had cheek teeth surgically removed because of tooth root infections. These infections can have a number of causes, says Jaana Pehkonen, DVM, but in this study “most were due to dental fractures with or without predisposing dental caries.”

Routine dental exams by a veterinarian can detect problems that may otherwise go overlooked.

The survey respondents answered 23 questions about how their horses behaved before and after the tooth extractions were performed. For example, the eating behaviors that most often disappeared after the dental procedure involved adjusting hay in the mouth while chewing, dropping hay or eating unusually slowly. Among the observed under-saddle behaviors, the one most often resolved by tooth extraction was evading the bit by going “above” or “behind” it. Withdrawn and antisocial behavior toward people or other horses were the most commonly reported general behaviors that dissipated after the procedure.

Click here to read a report on the scientific study of the benefits of dental work in horses.

“In this study, bit-related behavioral problems seemed to be more common than signs related to eating and drinking in horses suffering from periapical dental pain,” says Pehkonen. “However, bit-related problems may be easier for the owner to notice because most of them probably exercise the horse more often than observe its eating behavior.”

Indeed, her findings suggest that the signs of equine dental problems are often missed. In half of the study horses, the tooth infections were discovered during routine dental exams, suggesting that the owners did not realize the observed behaviors could be linked to dental pain, and only six of the study horses had external swellings, sinus drainage or other obvious signs of tooth problems prior to their diagnosis. Almost all of the owners—96 percent—said their horses benefitted from having the teeth removed.

“In ‘real life’ this happens a lot,” says Pehkonen. “Some of the signs the horse is showing are not regarded as indications of pain—for example, aggressive behavior, self-mutilation, introverted gaze—until the source of pain has been removed or cured. And usually these signs develop quite slowly, so knowing the horse is actually experiencing pain is sometimes really difficult or even impossible before the teeth or other painful disease have been cured.”

Based on these findings, Pehkonen recommends routine annual dental exams to identify problems that may otherwise go overlooked.

Reference: “Behavioral signs associated with equine periapical infection in cheek teeth,” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, June 2019

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