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Dental Care for Older Horses

Before any talk about the dental needs and care of older horses can begin, we should first clarify which group of horses we are talking about.

Instead of thinking of older horses in terms of their actual age, we should instead consider their “dental age”. Most horses will reach this category by the time they are in their late teens. It is important to understand that many of these horses are considered “older” but may still be fit, active and in work, and that for this discussion it is the age-related changes to their teeth that place them into this group.

Horses have hypsodont teeth, which means that although they continually erupt, they are not “growing”. Instead, the teeth are wearing down with age and becoming shorter. Therefore, in older horses we need to remember that:

  1. 1

    their teeth are constantly wearing and changing

  2. 2

    their teeth will eventually wear away or wear out

  3. 3

    different tissues within the teeth will wear out at different rates and times

  4. 4

    different teeth will wear at different rates or wear out at different times

  5. 5

    these processes will not occur in exactly the same way for each horse.

Due to the facts listed above, this group of horses will benefit from more frequent dental care.

What types of issues are commonly seen in this group of horses?

Overall there is a very clear difference between groups of older horses who have been subject to good, regular dental care when compared with older horses who have had irregular or poor care. The most important message here is that regular dental care of a high standard, provisioned from a young age, is the best protection you can give the teeth of an older horse.

That said, all horses of all ages wear their teeth as they chew to expose more of the sharp enamel. This forms points that begin to damage the cheeks and the tongue.

tongue trauma due to sharp points
Tongue trauma due to sharp points

As horses in this group generally have teeth that begin to become softer, they are likely to require removal of the sharp points more frequently as they grow older (much like horses of a young age). As the teeth wear out, they also change shape to become smaller and narrower. This leads to spaces developing between and around teeth. While this can happen at any age, it happens as a function of age in this group. These spaces trap feed, which then grows bacteria and leads to gum disease and tooth decay.

As this process worsens, pain leads to altered chewing by the horse which will in turn change tooth wear and the forces on individual teeth. The best way to prevent or manage this is through regular dental care to ensure early identification and treatment. If left too late, the only viable solution will be removal of any affected teeth.

extracted wolf teeth
Extracted wolf teeth

If your horse requires an extraction, remember that this is only happening because it’s now the only way to solve the problem and prevent further pain. Rest assured that horses cope very well once teeth are removed. Removal of teeth should be handled in a similar way to a visit to your own dentist, which includes the use of pain relief and nerve blocks, x-rays etc.

Don’t forget that older horses, just like aging people, will have other health issues and some of these have important effects on dental care and dental health. An important example is hyperadrenocorticism or “Cushings Disease”. Cushings Disease affects the horse’s immune system, which in turn slows wound healing. Therefore, to treat dental ulcers in these horses, you must first manage their Cushings Disease, otherwise the ulcers and injuries simply will not heal, no matter what dental work is carried out.

It is vitally important to discuss your horse’s general health with your equine dental vet, as this will ensure that underlying disease does not go undetected and untreated. With horses living longer, it is both important and exciting to know that with good care they can be free of dental pain, helping them live longer, happier lives.

About the author

Dr Shannon Lee BVSc, MANZCVSc (Eq Dent), DICEVO

Advanced Equine Dentistry

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