By Marlene Quiring

Donkeys, mules and horses experiencing pain or discomfort can exhibit various kinds of negative behavior. Ill-fitting equipment can cause “bad behavior” and along with many other reasons, so can dental problems. It is much too often assumed by the handler of the animal that negative behavior has no cause and needs to be dealt with by disciplining the poor beast.
Animals, like us, usually have a very good reason for their actions.
All domestic stock needs routine dental care, as they are not living on the abrasive diet of their feral counterparts.

Unlike human teeth, equine teeth are constantly pushing up through the jaw, and should wear with grazing at the same rate. Various dental and mouth problems do occur, and should be treated. Problems can occur at every age so their teeth should be checked at least yearly and preferably more often.

General Signs of Dental Problems:

• Sudden condition loss or variable condition.
• Eating problems. The equine will drop food or be unable to chew properly resulting in bolus formation.
• Undigested food in the dung.
• Digestive problems such as souring or colic.
• Foul breath.
• Biting problems due to the bit or noseband pressing on sharp molars, causing head tossing.
• Drooling or excessive foaming at the mouth.

If you discover any kind of discharge coming from your critters nostrils, particularly if it’s only on one side. This could be a sign of dental problems. An abscessed or broken tooth can cause an infection which often spreads to the sinus cavity. This can be a serious problem which may require surgery to treat the primary cause and current infection. Donkeys and mules can be very stoic about showing pain, so realizing that they are in distress can be an added difficulty.

The incisors (front nipper teeth) do require checking as often they are not being worn at the same rate of speed as the molars unless they are grazing 12 months of the year. Most stock in North America is fed hay or other supplements, for a good part of the year, or maybe even all year. When this happens the incisors are not engaged in pulling at grass and without that use, they grow too long and then soon the back molars do not meet resulting in the animal having to force more feed in his mouth so that the molars can grind it. This promotes food waste and can cause colic because of the bolting of too much feed. A qualified Equine Dentist should be levelling the front incisors so that eating is brought back to normal. The molars can also wear unevenly depending on the chewing action and very sharp edges can form which cut the cheeks and the tongue. The Dentist will trim off the sharp edges (called floating). This is painless but is often done with some sedation.

Teeth shedding – the deciduous teeth (caps) can cause problems by not dropping out but remain sitting on top of the permanent teeth. This can result in an uneven chewing surface and food caught in the teeth can cause inflammation from the cap root spiking the jaw. The cap will need to be pulled out.

Missing Tooth – When there is no grinding surface for the opposite tooth, it will grow down into the hole. This should be monitored.

Wolf Teeth – The wolf teeth (first premolars) are now missing in some equines. Do not confuse them with canine or bridle teeth that males get, but females usually don’t. They usually appear in the upper jaw, just in front of the molars. They can be quite small but sharp, and can be very irritated by the presence of a bit, ANY BIT! The only way to handle them is to have them removed by an equine dentist or a veterinarian. You can check for them yourself by looking into their mouth or by inserting your “least favorite finger” in the interdental space between the molars and incisors and feeling for the presence of this offending and useless tooth.

Bolus - ball of unchewed food (usually due to caps) that sits in the cheeks and causes inflammation and must be removed.

Mouth Abscesses - are often due to seeds (especially barley awns) lodged in the mouth and tongue. The seeds will have to be pulled out, and the inside of the mouth hosed out. Uneven surfaces of the molars contribute to this problem.

Old Age – Older equines need extra attention to their teeth, as they are more prone to tooth loss due to infection than younger stock. Uneven wearing of the molars can occur due to deafness and blindness because both conditions can cause them to chew unevenly. In extreme old age the teeth can wear down until they wear out. In such a case, soft feed and vitamins will have to be poured into the the animal. Donkeys and mules’ teeth do seem to wear better and last longer than horses’ teeth, probably the reason why they are more long lived.

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