Ask the Vet: How Important Is Routine Teeth Floating Really?

Q: “I keep hearing from so many people about having a horse’s teeth floated.  My horse is young, only 9, he is very healthy and other than 5 years ago when I first bought him, I have never had his teeth floated and am not sure that he really needs it.  Is teeth floating something that should be done routinely, or do we wait for symptoms before scheduling a flotation?  What creates the need arising?  Why do I hear some doing it so often, and others don’t ever really have it done?  What is the best plan of action?”  Pam W., Memphis, TN

This is a great question.  Horses’ teeth are unique in several ways. Unlike humans, horses have teeth that continue to erupt (or grow) throughout their lives. This type of tooth is known as a hypsodont tooth.  As they grow they wear down against the opposing teeth. Horses also have two distinct types of teeth; the incisors which are visible, and the premolars and molars which sit far back in the mouth and can’t be seen without a speculum. This process of continued growth and wear would work very well except for one reason; in horses the mandible (lower jaw) is slightly narrower than the maxilla (upper teeth.) Due to this reason and because of their shearing motion as the teeth wear down, they do not wear down evenly.  Because of this asymmetry sharp points or “hooks” develop on inside of the lower teeth and the outside of the upper teeth. These sharp points irritate the gums, cheeks and other teeth, making eating or having a bit in the mouth painful.  Despite having these painful oral lesions most horses will continue to eat in spite of them. “ Floating” (from the historical carpentry term) the teeth is a procedure where the excessive sharp points are filed down to create a smoother surface, thus allowing the horse to eat with greater ease.  Teeth floating should be part of any routine equine health care program.  Most horses need their teeth floated about once a year, but young horses may need it slightly more often (every 6-8 months). More important than removing the sharp dental points, floating allows your veterinarian to perform a good dental exam. Doing an annual dental exam can help catch problems such as broken or infected teeth early so that they can be treated while they are minor problems instead of waiting until they become major issues. The following are signs that your horse may need to have its teeth floated:

  Drops food from her mouth
  •     Exhibits difficulty in chewing
  •     Excessive salivation
  •     Loss of weight
  •     Undigested food particles in manure
  •     Head-tossing
  •     Excessive bit chewing
  •     Resisting having the bridle put on
  •     Difficult handling while riding
  •     Mouth odor
  •     Blood in the mouth
  •     Face swelling
  •     Nasal discharge
  •    It has been greater than 12 months since your horse last had his/her teeth checked

Dr. Wilson is a native of Dripping Springs, Texas. She attended Texas A&M for her undergraduate studies in Biomedical Science and obtained her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in the Spring of 2010. She has particular interests in lameness, internal medicine and surgery. Dr. Wilson joined Austin Equine as our first veterinary intern. She is member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association. Dr. Wilson is thrilled to be living in the Austin area. Away from work, she is an avid rider and owns Malcolm, a twenty-one year old Thoroughbred.

If you have a question you would like to ASK A VET, please email with the subject: ‘ask a vet’

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