Gummed Out: Young Horses Lose Many Teeth, Vet Says
April 15, 2004 – As a child, a visit from the tooth fairy made losing a tooth fun and exciting. However, the tooth fairy would be working overtime if she visited young horses every time they lost a tooth.
Dr. Leon Scrutchfield, equine professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University, says there are several differences between human and horse teeth, and it is important to be aware of these to understand what happens in your horse’s mouth.
“Horses between 2 ½ and 4 years of age lose 24 of their baby teeth and gain 32 to 36 permanent teeth or cheek teeth,” says Scrutchfield. “Generally, this is the age when horses are in training for athletic competition, so it is important to provide consistent dental care during this time.
“If a young horse’s performance is declining or if it is having problems eating, it’s mouth should be checked to see if erupting permanent teeth are the root of the problem.”
Scrutchfield says as the young teeth are lost, they are replaced with permanent teeth. Horses’ permanent teeth are very distinct.
Instead of an overall covering of enamel like human teeth, enamel is woven throughout the horse’s tooth. The complex combination of enamel, cement, and dentin makes the tooth a lot stronger and therefore more resistant to wear. This keeps the grinding surface of the teeth coarse so roughage can be more easily broken down aiding in digestion, Scrutchfield adds.
“Horse teeth evolved for grazing and eating roughage up to 16 to 18 hours a day,” he notes. “The grit like material in grass wears down teeth. To overcome this wear, horse teeth continue to erupt throughout their lifetime.”
Eruption is the process by which teeth already housed within the gum grow out and are exposed. As the horse becomes older, more of the exposed teeth are worn down. To replace the lost surface area, the tooth continues to erupt at a rate of approximately two to three millimeters per year.
“Teeth are not necessarily continually growing because once they are formed as a permanent tooth they do not get longer, instead they are continually erupting up out of the gum,” explains Scrutchfield. “A young horse has very long teeth, with most of the length down in the gum as opposed to an older horse that has teeth that are much shorter under the gum than when it was younger.”
The part of a tooth that is under the gum is called the reserve crown, while the part that is exposed outside of the gum is the clinical crown.
Even though many differences are present between human and horse teeth, one similarity is certain. Regular dental care is a necessity for overall health.
Being aware of the differences between human and horse teeth will enable horse owners to provide better overall care for their animals, Scrutchfield adds.