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Dental care crucial for horses' teeth

Staff writer

The average horse has about 35 teeth and should live to be about 30 years old. However, according to veterinarian Rebecca Erwin of Animal Health Center of Marion County, most horses do not live that long because their teeth get bad.

“Most horses need to have their teeth checked every year from about age 8 on,” she said. “Some need special care even earlier than that, but if a horse’s teeth are cared for, they will live a lot longer and have a happier healthier life if they can eat properly.”

A relatively new tool on the market for veterinarian use has made caring for horses’ teeth a lot easier. It is called a Swiss horse float, and the use of it has changed the life of Brenda Medlin’s horse Sonny, north of Marion.

Sonny, a tri-colored, bay paint is over 20 years old, but some of his years have been on borrowed time.

“He has been in the family for at least 12 to 13 years,” said his owner, Medlin. “But before that he was a rescue animal and had some severe health problems.”

Medlin said Sonny has bad teeth and she knows it is time for him to have a checkup when she sees grain falling from his mouth when he eats.

“I have to feed him separate from the other horses because they boss him around,” she said. “He starts losing weight if he can’t keep the feed in his mouth long enough to eat it.”

Erwin explained that horses grind their food across their teeth, rather than chew with an up and down motion.

“If they have teeth that are uneven, it not only causes them pain to eat, the food just falls out between the spaces that don’t meet.”

Erwin, a licensed veterinarian in Marion County since 2005, has always had a special interest in equine health.

“I’ve worked with a lot of horses and learned a thing or two about them,” she said.

Filing or floating horse’s teeth can actually be a very dangerous job for the person doing the work. In the past, the only tool available for this job was a rasp-like file. However, advances in technology, along with good common sense, have made it a bit easier for both the horse and the vet.

“This tool we use now, the Swiss float, is very quiet and easy to use,” Erwin said. “It’s nice to the horse and takes a lot of the work out of it for me.”

The float looks like a large drill motor with a round disk sander attached to a foot long, flat, polished metal, rod.

Prior to inserting the float into the horse’s mouth, Erwin injects a sedative in the horse’s neck to calm him or her. Then her assistant, Steph Jensen, helps place a special halter on the horse, which holds the mouth open.

Erwin goes to work with her hands in the horse’s mouth, feeling for impactions and cleaning out gunk that might be stuck between teeth or teeth and gums.

“I have a lot better luck just doing this by feel,” she said. “It’s more stressful for the horse if I am moving all around, holding up its head, trying to see in there. I can pretty much feel everything I need to know.”

Erwin uses an antiseptic wash to cleanse the horse’s mouth and teeth, then inserts the Swiss float and goes to work.

The float is very quiet, barely heard above regular conversation that takes place between horse owner, veterinarian, and horse during the procedure.

“Dr. Erwin is the absolute best,” Medlin said. “She knows how to sense the horse’s moods. She never pushes too hard or waits too long. She is just real good.”

Erwin said the way to avoid injuries is to let the horse rest in between cleaning top and bottom areas of the teeth.

“Horses are a fight or flight species,” she said. “We want to make this as quiet and easy as possible.”

The Swiss float grinds the teeth edges down into small dust particles and they become level and flat across the surface. An antiseptic wash is used again after the floating process is complete to wash the dust particles from the horse’s mouth.

“This simple procedure can do so much to extend the life of a horse,” Erwin said. “It’s non-irritating and all horse owners should be aware of how easy it is to have this done.”

Erwin said fall is a very good time of the year to check horses’ teeth, as many owners bring them in from pasture and put them into feedlot situations.

“A horse can eat grass OK with uneven teeth, but once they have to survive on hay and grain, it becomes very important that those teeth are level,” Erwin said.

Medlin, who owns three other horses in addition to Sonny, said her animals were very important to her.

“I want to do all I can to make sure they are happy and healthy,” she said.

Erwin said the cost to have a horse’s teeth floated was a good investment for horse owners.

“Good teeth correlate to good health and a longer life for the horse,” she said. “It’s a small price to pay to prevent a much larger bill or problem later on.

Last modified Nov. 24, 2011

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