The ultimate goal when caring for the teeth of a senior horse is to keep the horse as comfortable as possible while trying to save as many functional teeth as possible. Horses can develop significant changes in their mouth as they age, so it is important that they receive regular dental care through their senior years by a veterinarian.
Horse teeth do not grow forever. Horses are born with a set length of tooth in their skull. As they age, the teeth erupt through the gum line and into the mouth. Horse teeth are designed to wear over time, and the surface of the tooth can begin to become smooth. All teeth don’t always wear evenly, so some may become too tall, or more worn than others, which can cause difficulty chewing. When you have a senior horse with smoother, more worn teeth, it is hard for them to grind up their hay and other coarse feed. Thus, their diet needs to be changed in order to include food that is easier for them to mash up with what is left of their teeth.
Most horses need to eat 2% of their body weight daily in order to maintain their weight. For example, a 1,000 lb horse would need to eat 20lbs of food each day to stay at its current weight. That sounds like a lot, but most of that weight comes from hay. If you have a senior horse that can’t chew hay anymore, it is important to remember that they need food in new forms such as senior feed, soaked hay pellets, etc. Senior feed is “pre-chewed” so to speak, and the pellets break down quickly with saliva, making it easier for the older horses with less functional teeth to eat. By supplementing your horse’s diet with foods they can easily chew, you are helping them maintain their weight the best they can into their golden years.
Other than wearing out their teeth, horses can develop several diseases that can have a huge effect on their mouths, especially as they age.
Periodontal disease is a painful aliment that is very common in older horses due to age-related changes in the teeth. Uneven wear of the teeth can cause feed to accumulate in spaces around them, leading to painful inflammation and infection. In mild cases, proper floating on a regular basis can help keep the disease from progressing. In more advanced cases, periodontal disease can lead to severe tooth infections requiring the affected teeth to be extracted.
EOTRH (Equine Odontoclastic Tooth Resorption and Hypercementosis) is another painful equine dental disease. It affects the incisors and canines in older horses and can take years to develop. You may notice your horse having a hard time grabbing treats, grasping hay or grass, and they may resist taking the bit. The disease is incredibly painful for the horse and can interfere with their daily lives. The only course of treatment is to remove the affected teeth. EOTRH will be discussed more in depth in another blog post.
Cushings is another common disease in older horses and affects the pituitary gland. One effect of Cushings disease is that it suppresses the horse’s immune system. It makes them susceptible to infection and impedes wound healing. It also increases their risk for periodontal disease and sinus infections. Untreated dental problems in Cushings patients can actually be life threatening, which is why routine oral examinations by your veterinarian are important.
With the help of modern medicine and advancements in nutrition, horses are living well into their 30s. Their teeth were really only made to last about 15 years, so it is important for them to receive regular dental care and age-appropriate nutrition throughout their lives so that when 30 rolls around, they are healthy and happy and have most of their teeth! If you have any questions or concerns regarding your senior horse and their dental care, don’t hesitate to reach out to your veterinarian!