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Understanding The Needs of The Senior Horse: Dental Care

In my introduction to this series on the care and management of the older horse (which you can find here) I discussed what constitutes old age and identified four areas where senior horses face specific challenges.  These were; dentition, nutrient absorption, environmental stress and disease.  Today I am going to tackle the first of these, dental care with the help of an extremely qualified and knowledgeable guest Dr Geoff Tucker.  Before you think that you have a young horse so this article is not for you think again.  As you will see, dental care of the senior horse starts when they are about 5 years old!

Doc Tucker, as he is known, has been an equine veterinarian since graduating from Cornell in 1984 when he started his own successful private practice.  In 1998 Doc Tucker sold his New York equine practice in order to focus solely on equine dentistry something he had been passionate about since 1983 when he first started doing floats.  He has performed over 50,000 floats the majority without the use of sedation due to his use of sound horsemanship principles.  Today in his thriving dental practice Doc Tucker works on horses up and down the east coast from Florida to New York and almost every state in between.  So when I decided to put together a series specifically focused on the care and management of the senior horse, of which dental care is large component, Doc Tucker was my “go to” person for input.  Below are his thoughts as they relate specifically to senior horse.

Those of you who already read Doc Tuckers blog The Equine Practice or who have watched any of his videos on his dentistry website will know that he always provides much food for thought and this piece is no different.  Because I know that this is a huge topic and because I know this piece will really get you thinking Doc Tucker and I are going to get together and offer a teleseminar where we can cover this topic in more detail and answer your specific questions.  To be sure that you don’t miss the announcement of this event be sure to sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of our homepage.

Teeth In Older Horses

Equine dentistry, horse teeth, and nutrition of the older horse are subjects I am commonly asked about, but the first question I always ask back is, “What is your definition of “old.”  The answers I get surprise me especially when late teens are mentioned.

In my opinion, the “age” of a horse is only a counting of how many times it has circled the sun, but “how old” is based on genetics and environment.  Just yesterday I was asked to see a 37 year old Standardbred who had lots of teeth.  I have also seen horses 15 years younger in age with almost all of their teeth gone.  However, the vast majority have all their teeth until they die.

Another subject often asked about is what to feed the “older horse.”  Senior feeds have exploded onto the market and I am amazed with how many 10 to 15 year olds with perfect teeth are being feed a “senior” feed.

A well done scientific study was done recently where 17 horses were fed the same diet.  Each horse had various conditions in the mouth that was thought to affect feed utilization.  The study’s conclusion was what most horse owners already know.  Most horse’s poop looks the same.

The study took samples of feed from various parts of the digestive tract as well as their manure.  The conclusion was simple.  As long as the food got past the swallowing part, all food was digested in the GI tract and not by the teeth.

Some surgeons performing colic surgeries have noticed hay fibers massing into impactions.  They jump to the conclusion that sharp teeth are not grinding the feed into small particles and it is this that leads to impactions and blockages of the gut.  This unchallenged observation confuses me for two reasons.  First, plenty of horses without dental care never impact their GI tract.  Second, no studies were done to study the effect of environment on these horses including the observance of gastric or colonic ulcers.  What did the manure of these impacted horses look like?  What was their hydration?

At what age do we need to start worrying about horse teeth?  From my position of observing horse’s teeth since 1983, I would say around 5 years of age and this is why.  In most horses, the sharp edges formed on the teeth cause pain in the soft tissues of the mouth.  Depending upon how much pain the horse feels will determine how well he cares for his teeth into the older years.

To understand the special problems of older horses and their dental care, I’ll need to explain some of the basics affecting all horse’s teeth.

Basic #1 - Eruption and “Old Horse Tooth”

The horse gets a full set of mature teeth by 5 years of age.  Up to this point, baby teeth (also called deciduous teeth or caps) are being shed and permanent teeth are growing to full size, entering their positions where they will erupt.  The concept of eruption is similar to thinking of a mechanical pencil loaded with a stick of lead.  As you write the lead is worn off and, if the pencil is not turned, one edge of the lead becomes longer and forms a sharp edge.  Floating horse teeth is similar to removing the sharp edge of the lead.

As the pencil lead wears off, more is clicked into position.  This is similar to the eruption of the teeth.  At some point, the pencil runs out of lead and the horse also runs out of tooth to replace wear.  This is what I call “end stage” tooth and the first tooth this happens to is usually the first lower cheek tooth.  As this first lower cheek tooth wears into the root system, the regular edges are replaced with irregular edges that are very difficult to float.  I affectionately call this “old horse tooth” and is first seen about the age of 17 years.

Basic #2 - Tooth Hardness

Younger horses have softer teeth and therefore get sharp quickly.  As the horse matures, the teeth usually get harder.  This is opposite to common belief that younger horses don’t need floating.  It is quite the opposite.  Floating young horses with their dynamic dental needs lays the groundwork for healthy teeth in the older horse.

Basic #3 - The Threshold Of Pain

It is not how sharp the teeth are, but the horse’s threshold of pain that is more important.  This one factor determines the frequency of floating, not the dogma of a set time period such as once a year or twice a year.  For most horses, somewhere between 6 months and a year, dental care moves from preventive to corrective.  The horse’s comfort in chewing, the acceptance on the bit, and how often floating is needed is determined by the horse’s threshold of pain.  Removing the potential source of oral pain before it becomes a source of pain will create a healthy environment for all teeth regardless of the genetic predisposition to wear.  Maintaining a healthy mouth will lead to longevity of the teeth.

Here is an example of how an older horse with a low threshold of pain will respond to sharp points.  The pressure applied to the teeth when chewing will be uneven in a horse guarding himself from pain.  This leads to loosening of the teeth in the socket over time in the older horse with short reserved crown (nearing end stage).  Many older horses when floated for the first time in a long time have teeth that wiggle as the rasp is passed over them.  A return visit in 3 months after all the sharp points are removed finds all teeth firmly attached in their sockets.  It is quite amazing.

Basic #4 - The Importance Of The Tongue

Tongue movement is affected by sharp points and a horse with a low threshold of pain is very sensitive to this.  The tongue is critical in the formation of a food bolus comfortable enough to swallow.  Anyone with a tongue sore will agree that if the tongue’s movement is limited by pain, it becomes difficult to impossible to chew food into something you are willing to swallow.

The tongue also is responsible for cleaning the mouth.  Try moving the tip of your tongue into every possible area of your mouth.  Isn’t it fascinating how easy it is to do this?  However, with sharp points, this becomes impossible.

Finally, the tongue is also responsible in keeping the teeth firmly attached in the socket.  If someone gently pushed your shoulders back as you stood, your leg and core muscles would push back in an effort to remain standing.  If you were pushed about 25,000 times a day, how strong would your core become?  Did you know the horse chews between 10,000 and 40,000 times a day - or 25,000 times on average?

Take Home Points For Older Horse Dental Care

1) Preventing dental problems in older horses starts with regular preventive removal of pain causing points from 5 years of age.

2) Dental health in horses is achieved with pain free chewing and full excursions of the tongue within the mouth.

3) If the teeth in the horse have been neglected and the horse is 20 years old or older, removal of sharp points is the primary objective.  All other approaches including the correction of abnormalities are secondary to the primary purpose of removing oral pain.

4) Before doing anything in the horse’s mouth, step back and look at the horse.  Many horses with severe abnormalities are fat and happy.  Drastic changes may cause the horse to stop eating.

5) If severe dental abnormalities are preventing the horse from eating because chewing is difficult to impossible, remove the offending sharp points and review the feeding management.  Often a change in feed or the way it is fed is as important as removing the oral pain.

To learn more about Doc Tucker and contact him visit him at his website The Equine Practice from here you will be able to visit his several other sites and blogs.  Be sure to check out his phenomenal photographs on his barnpics site, sign up for his letter an keep up with him on facebook.  And remember that the information contained in this blog post is for information only and is the opinion of Geoff Tucker, DVM. It is not intended to replace your relationship with your veterinarian nor is it to be considered an attempt to diagnose or treat your animal. You need to discuss any and all medical conditions with your veterinarian who has established a relationship with you and your horse.

Creative Commons License
Understanding The Needs of The Senior Horse: Dental Care by Clair Thunes PhD of Summit Equine Nutrition LLC and Dr Geoff Tucker of The Equine Practice is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Published: Feb 28, 2012
Last Modified: 
May 9, 2024 @ 9:31 pm

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