Vet's Voice: It is important to care for the teeth of aging horses

Photo courtesy of the College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University Example of a skull with evidence of severe wave mouth. Note the elongation of the lower cheek in response to the cupping of the upper cheek teeth (arrows). This elongation will interfere with the horses' circular pattern of chewing.

Our equine friends are living much longer today than they ever have in the past. As our horses age, it is more important than ever to try to maintain their health.

One critical aspect of geriatric horse health is dental care. Older horses are prone to having dental disease, which can have serious adverse effects on overall health and, therefore, needs special attention.

Horses have hypsodont teeth, which means they have a long reserve crown underneath the gum line which continually erupts through the gum throughout life. When grazing, horses use the lips, tongue and incisor teeth to nip the forage. The grassy stems and leaves then are passed back to the cheek teeth where the fibers are chewed into small digestible bits. As a result, as horses become older, they may have teeth that have worn excessively or improperly or have fallen out.

Here are some common age-related dental problems:

• Cupped teeth -- "Cupping" refers to an age-related process in which the upper cheek teeth develop a concave chewing surface. This occurs starting at approximately 15 years old as the upper cheek teeth are worn down by the harder, lower cheek teeth. Cupping results in diminished ability to chew roughage and predisposes older horses to develop wave-mouth conformations.

• Wave mouth -- A wave mouth occurs when there is shallowing/cupping of the upper cheek teeth and elongation of the lower cheek teeth. This appears as a wavy or undulating pattern to the occlusal table profile instead of a fairly level chewing surface. Severe wave mouth can cause a disruption in the horse's normal circular chewing motion.

• Loose teeth -- As a horse's teeth continually erupt, eventually they will become very smooth and wear down to the very apical aspect of the tooth root. At this point, the tooth may become loose in the socket and eventually might fall out. Having these short, smooth teeth reduces the ability to chew hay, and the presence of a loose tooth in a senior horse causes discomfort as it moves around in the socket during chewing.

• Diastemata -- These are abnormal spaces between teeth, which allow accumulation of grass and fibers below the gum. In the geriatric horse, they occur most commonly as the diameter of the teeth becomes narrower as they wear down toward the root. These abnormal spaces can cause severe gum disease or even sinus disease by packing food between the teeth and causing infection.

There are two goals to keep in mind when approaching dental care in older horses. The first is to maintain as much remaining tooth as possible to ensure to preserve the chewing surface (because they don't have a lot of reserve crown left). The second is to provide maximum functionality so that they can continue grinding feed successfully. This can be accomplished by following some general guidelines.

It is important to schedule frequent dental exams in older horses because their mouths are more irregular and they can change much more quickly than most, younger horses. A good rule of thumb is to have a detailed oral exam every 6-12 months to determine the best treatment options for your horse. During these visits, your veterinarian can detect problems such as sharp areas, overlong teeth, diastemata, or loose teeth. Treatments may include dental floating, prescribed mouth rinses, or extraction of diseased teeth in some cases.

Since many of the problems that occur in the geriatric horse mouth cause an inability to chew roughage properly and are impossible to correct completely, the key to caring for these horses will be nutritional management. Correct nutrition will allow a geriatric horse to obtain its nutritional requirements and decrease the risk of choke or colic.

In some instances, it may become necessary to eliminate long, coarse roughage from the diet of horses with severely diminished chewing ability. A complete feed pellet, formulated for senior horses can be used to provide complete nutrition. They are easy to moisten to allow horses with dental abnormalities to ingest without much chewing.

Green grass and chopped or cubed hay can be added to the diet that have diminished ability to grind coarse roughage.

• Vet's Voice is written by members of the faculty and staff of the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. It appers monthy in The Land & Livestock Post.

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