Dental Care for Older Horses

A look at a horse's teeth as he reaches for a treat.
A look at a horse's teeth as he reaches for a treat. Cameilia

Most horses need dental care periodically, especially as they get older. Domestic horses are usually kept in artificial conditions, eating grain and hay rather than grazing at pasture, and may not wear their teeth normally. Dental care is an important part of good horse management.

A dental checkup once a year is usually adequate, but as the teeth age, it is wise to have twice-yearly dental exams. A quick look in the mouth by a veterinarian using a speculum and a good light, and a feel around in the mouth, can find any problems that might be developing.

As a horse gets older, teeth start to wear out. Equine teeth continue to push up out of the jawbone to compensate for wear. As the teeth wear, through years of use, there is less and less reserve tooth. Years ago, horses didn't live past when their teeth wore out; horses in their 20's were considered old.

Today, with improvements in many aspects of health care (including dental care) and diet, we can feed older horses beyond when their teeth wear out or fall out, and we need to be proactive in taking care of their dental needs.

A twice-a-year dental check lets us to know if there are hooks or points that need to be smoothed or if a horse has loose teeth or missing teeth - with feed packing into spaces that weren't there earlier. Various dental issues create eating problems, or risk for infection at the roots, or openings where infection could go up into the sinuses.

Veterinarian inspecting a horse's teeth.

Veterinarian inspecting a horse's teeth

Periodic dental care is vital for maintaining a senior horse's health, and making sure it does not have to endure painful dental issues.

Old teeth are more brittle than young teeth, and fracture more easily - which may lead to gum infections.

Sometimes the veterinarian finds an infected or fractured tooth, or gum infection where food is packed into abnormal spaces in a horse that is still eating well. Often the owner hasn't noticed any signs of pain, but early detection of such issues can save the horse from more severe dental problems.

We need to watch for changes such as eating more slowly, reluctance to eat types of feed, moving the food around in the mouth more than usual, or quidding (dropping wads of partially chewed hay).

Weight loss can be a sign of dental problems, if the horse isn't eating enough or can't chew properly. Although there can be a variety of reasons why a horse might have trouble holding proper weight, checking the horse's teeth is a good starting point on the list of things to check.

Other signs of dental problems include nasal discharge, especially if it's just on one side. This can be a sign of sinus problems - and bad teeth are frequently involved in a sinus infection in horses.

Bad breath is another sign that might indicate the horse has a mouth infection. A horse's breath always smells good, and this should not change as he gets older.

Inability to chew properly affects feed efficiency and nutritional status, and can also increase risk for other problems such as choke or impaction colic. If the fiber in forages is not chewed adequately (not broken down enough), the horse has a harder time moving the mass of feed through the digestive tract.

Mild diarrhea or fluid coming out with normal manure can also be a sign of dental problems, since inadequately chewed fiber can irritate the gut.

If an older horse is having trouble chewing forages, the dental problem needs to be addressed, or the horse may need a change in diet if the teeth are too worn out.

Today there are feeds designed specifically for older horses that can't eat normally. There are chopped forages, and also some cubes and pellets that can be soaked.

Some of these can be fed as a complete diet, without having to rely on hay. These products are nutritious and palatable and can keep older horses going for a few more years.

Even a fat, sleek old horse should still have his teeth checked; he could have dental problems even though he is fat and doing well. Problems could be developing that should be dealt with before they get worse and cause him trouble or before damage is too great. Dental care could buy him more time before his teeth get a lot worse.

For dental work, the horse may have to be sedated. If there is arthritis in the temporal mandibular joint, it is painful for the horse to open his mouth that much. A little sedation can minimize that discomfort and also relax that region.

Sedation can make dental procedures safe and comfortable for the horse, with fewer risks. Most veterinarians will also use a speculum, so every tooth can be thoroughly checked - seen and felt. If a tooth is loose you might not be able to tell without wiggling it.

Most equine veterinarians can do the necessary work to keep an older horse's teeth healthy, and there are also specialists with more training and equipment. Your veterinarian can refer a horse to a specialist if the horse needs more treatment for a certain problem.

Serious dental problems are fairly rare. Most dental problems in older horses involve teeth wearing out, uneven wear, or just the fact that the teeth are worn out or missing.

Occasionally a horse has a problem with incisors, especially if they are mismatched, or if one or two fall out or break from being kicked, falling down, running into something, biting a rock in feed, etc. In addition, incisors may develop uneven wear over time as a horse ages.

Horses' teeth are unlike human teeth, and most of the common dental procedures for horses are not painful. The horse's tooth anatomy is much different from human teeth, and they don't need root canals and fillings. Infection in the horse's mouth or an abscess affecting a tooth can be treated with antibiotics or the veterinarian may extract the affected tooth.

In most cases, the goal is to save a bad tooth in a horse of any age. The jaw is healthier with the tooth in its proper place. When there's a gap in the horse's mouth with no tooth, the opposing tooth has nothing to wear against and may get too long creating additional problems for the horse.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Author picture

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 58 years and has been writing about them nearly that long. She got her first horse at age 9 and began raising horses of her own while in high school, using them in 4-H and to help with cattle work on her parents’ ranch.

She began writing horse stories for children’s magazines and horse care articles for equine publications to help pay her way through college (University of Puget Sound), and has sold more than 10,000 stories and articles and published 24 books. Her first book, A horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner, was written during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and published by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1966.

Most of her magazine articles deal with health care, breeding, training, horse behavior/handling or veterinary topics (horses and cattle). She and her husband raise beef cattle and a few horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho, where they use their horses for cattle work.

What began as an expression of interest and love of horses (freelance writing) soon became a way to help pay the bills on a struggling family ranch; her writing became the equivalent of an “off farm job” that could be done at home at odd hours between riding range to check on cattle, delivering calves, etc.

Heather rarely leaves the ranch--staying home to take care of “critters” has been a way of life. After selling some of the cow herd to her son and his family, her part time writing job has become more full time. She now writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications,

Recent books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Stable Smarts, Beyond the Flames—A Family Touched by Fire, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Good Horse-Bad Habits, Essential Guide to Calving, and Cattle Health Handbook.

Heather's most recent books include Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, a compilation of horse stories telling about some of the interesting and challenging horses in her life. Cow Tales; More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. Most of her books and articles deal with horses or cattle health care, breeding, or handling. Her goal has been to learn all she can about care and handling of horses and cattle and to share these experiences with her readers.

These days, she enjoys riding with her youngest grandchildren who live on the ranch are now ages 14 through 17. She has also appreciated the help of her oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas) who graduated from Carroll College and is now married and living on a farm in Saskatchewan. “Grandma Heather” enjoys the special times with her grandchildren who share her love of horses.