Periodontal disease refers to inflammation of the structures that support the tooth (including the gum, periodontal ligaments and the bone within which the tooth sits). Studies have shown that a third of all horses show evidence of periodontal disease – in older horses this percentage is much higher!
Periodontal disease can occur secondary to missing teeth, diastemata (gaps between teeth) or calculus (plaque) on the teeth amongst other things. The normal tight seal between the tooth and surrounding soft tissues is lost allowing food material to become trapped in the gap. This sets up infection and causes further recession of the gum, much like people get with gum disease. This cycle can eventually lead to infection tracking along the edge of the tooth down to the root or into the jawbone. In severe cases the tooth may become loose or fall out, obviously causing significant pain in the process.
Treatment of periodontal disease involves a thorough assessment of the tooth and surrounding soft tissues with careful cleaning and assessment of the depth of any periodontal pockets. In some cases widening of gaps between teeth may be recommended which reduces the amount of food trapping in the gap and occasionally teeth may need to be extracted if the disease process has progressed too far.
Horses are often able to adapt to the early stages of this disease and may not show obvious signs until the process is advanced. Regular, thorough dental examinations are essential to pick up subtle signs enabling early treatment before the disease progresses.