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Aging livestock by their teeth

Our grazing animals, that is equids like horses and donkeys and ruminants such as sheep, cattle and goats, have very long teeth that continue to erupt over most of their lives. This is to counter the wearing effect of the teeth being continually worn down by eating fibrous food. The food ruminants eat is tough and needs to be thoroughly chewed. If their teeth didn't continue to erupt as they were worn down they'd be toothless while very young. This is why ruminants have such deep jaw bones to hold their long teeth.

All of these grazing animlas have molars and premolars in the back of their jaws. These are commonly called "cheek teeth" and are used for grinding the food before swallowing.

Where equids and ruminants differ is on the front top of their mouths. Horses have 12 incisors at the front, 6 on the top and 6 on the bottom, allowing them to tear off blades of grass. This is easy to see in the big 'horsey grin'. Horses may also have canine teeth, or "tushes". These are most common in males but can be see in females.

Ruminants do not have any top incisors, but instead have a hard "dental pad", which their 8 lower teeth push against to grasp their food. The dental pad looks just like a toothless gum.

Aging by teeth

Livestock have baby teeth just like humans. Baby teeth are called "deciduous" or "milk" teeth. Babies are usually born without front teeth, but these will erupt shortly after birth over the first week or so. If they are born premature it may take longer.

The baby teeth fall out and are replaced with adult teeth in a very specific order. The adult teeth erupt as pairs of teeth with the two centre teeth coming through first, then the next pair either side of the front pair and so on. This allows us to calculate the age of a young animal by looking at the number of adult teeth it has.

For example:

Sheep

  • The first two adult teeth will erupt at around 1 year old. This is why farmers call 1-year-old sheep 'two tooths'.
  • The second pair of adult teeth with erupt at around 2 years, the third 3 years etc.
  • Once a sheep has all eight adult teeth at around 4 years old it is called a 'full mouth'.
  • After this point you can only estimate a sheep's age by looking at how worn the teeth are.

Opening the mouth

All of these grazing animals have a handy gap between their front and back bottom teeth. If you need to examine an animal's mouth you can slide a finger in this gap and touch the roof of the mouth which should stimulate the animal to open it's mouth.

Teeth problems

Because the teeth of grazing animals are continuously wearing down, they can encounter a myriad of issues which can prevent them from eating well, and will eventually cause significant pain and weight loss.

Many of our farmed species are slaughtered at a very young age, relative to their potential lifespan, so teeth issues may not be seen. But on our lifestyle blocks with older animals, especially where pets are living to an old age, we need to keep an extra close eye on their dental care.

 For more information on dealing with common teeth problems see our LSB Course 'What you need to know about teeth'

 

 

 

 

 

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