VET’S DIARY: It’s not exactly looking a gift horse in the mouth

Lesley Barwise-Munro.
Lesley Barwise-Munro.

I recently had the honour of being invited to speak at the British Equine Veterinary Association annual congress in Manchester.

This event is the high point of any equine vet’s education and social calendar, providing top class lectures, updates and debates relating to equine veterinary medicine, and attracts equine vets from all over the world. No pressure then.

I was part of a morning of lectures on equine dentistry and was presenting the results of a study carried out by the equine vets in Alnorthumbria Veterinary Group.

Data was gathered from all routine dental examinations from a mixed breed, mixed age population, from 2008 to 2009.

Many of you may remember us doing it, thank you for letting us use data from your horse. It is important that practices such as ours are willing to get involved in field studies in order to benefit veterinary research.

The study was carried out in conjunction with professor Paddy Dixon, from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh.

It showed conclusively that the condition of cheek teeth diastema is highly prevalent, 49.9 per cent of the 471 horses examined were found to have at least one diastema in their cheek teeth, which in practical terms is every second horse.

The study also showed that the condition was more common with increasing age, but no breed differences were found.

Diastemata are abnormal gaps between the teeth allowing food to get trapped.

The trapped food material decays causing gum infection.

In 43 per cent of all diastema deep gingival pockets develop where rotting food is found below the gum level next to the tooth root and jaw bone.

This is the most painful condition of a horse’s mouth. In the early stages there may be no outward signs, but the pain will lead to dropping of food (quidding) and weight loss. Eventually periodontal ligament damage and tooth loss can occur.

A thorough oral cavity examination by a vet or a qualified equine dental technician (EDT), where every tooth and every gap between the teeth is visualised with a head torch and dental mirror ensures early diagnosis. Feeling with the hand in a horse’s mouth is not good enough - diastemata will be missed.

Diastemata can also easily be missed in an uncooperative patient, so horse owners must appreciate the importance of allowing the vet to sedate their horse/pony/donkey if needed, in order to make sure your horse is not left with untreated diastemata.

The small extra cost incurred for sedation will enable early diagnosis and treatment for this condition.

None of the treatment for diastemata is invasive and as the drugs used have short competition withdrawal times training and competition schedules need not be disrupted.

Performance horses have a rigorous training programme which already predisposes them to equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS).

A painful, chronically infected mouth will discourage eating and exacerbate the risk of EGUS further.

It is inevitable that early detection and treatment of diastemata will enhance performance and equine welfare.

This work was published in the Veterinary Record last year. Thank-you to all the staff of Alnorthumbria Equine and its horse owners.

We are now in the process of recording the incidence of another emerging equine dental disease called peripheral caries.

It is the hope that we can help to identify the cause and most appropriate line of treatment for this condition.