Back From the Vet: Goat Dental Health

Back From the Vet: Goat Dental Health

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If you have owned animals, livestock, or even pets, you have likely taken a peek into their mouths. Your cats and dogs may have dental cleanings, or your horse may have had a tooth floating.  Though you may have gandered at your goat’s incisors to assess age, likely you have not taken them to the veterinarian. As advancements in the care of livestock have been made, more emphasis is being made on the oral health of goats.  

With their near-constant chewing, goats require good teeth to maintain their health and condition. It has long been known that as goats age and their teeth diminish, they are less able to maintain their body condition. While dental treatment may not be economically feasible for all goats, it can help prolong valuable animals’ lives. 

To understand goat dental health, it is important to know what is normal. Goats, like all mammals, have two separate “sets” of teeth: their baby, or deciduous, teeth and their adult teeth. They also have no upper or maxillary incisors. Instead, they have a firm area of gingival tissue known as the dental pad. Goats have four lower incisors, baby and adult. Baby goats have three pre-molars, top and bottom. Adult goats have three pre-molars and three molars, top and bottom. 

The eruption or development of incisors can be useful in helping to determine the age of a goat. The deciduous incisors, or baby teeth, erupt over the first month of life. The center incisors erupt in the first week of life. The second incisors erupt in the second week of life. The third incisors erupt in the second to third weeks of life, and the fourth incisors in the third to fourth weeks. These baby incisors are also known as the milk teeth. 

The adult incisors begin eruption at one to one and a half years of age for the center incisors. The second incisors come in at one and a half to two years. The third come in at two and a half to three years, and the fourth come in at three and a half to four years. By the age of four years, goats should have all of their permanent teeth. Examining the incisors in a young goat will give a good indication of their age. After four years, the teeth will change with wear. Feeding or grazing particularly gritty feeds will result in more rapid wear.  

The adult molars and pre-molars of goats, or cheek teeth, are known as hypsodont or long-crowned teeth. They have sharp enamel points that allow for the breakdown of roughage feeds. These teeth have a very large crown below the gum line that continues to erupt over time. As goats age and their teeth wear from chewing, they will advance more crown above the gum line. Eventually, however, if the goat lives long enough, this reserve crown will wear down, and the tooth will expire. The adult molars and pre-molars of goats erupt between the ages of three months at two years. As they are not easily visible in the back of the mouth, they are much less useful for aging.  

Dental disease in goats is not yet well studied. Ruminants have historically been treated as production animals, making the increased cost of dental care unwarranted. If a goat had poor teeth, it was culled from the herd. As goats have become valuable companions or breeding stock, there is now increased interest in dental care. Goats can have many manifestations of dental disease. Due to the chewing of rough feeds, they can have over-wear of teeth. The constant eruption of the molars can also result in overgrowth of the tooth if it is not wearing appropriately during chewing. Goats can also develop gingivitis and periodontal disease that can result in lost teeth. If the teeth do not develop appropriately, or there is a jaw deformity, this can also result in abnormal wear. With all of their adult teeth or greater than four years, goats are more likely to develop dental disease.  

As with many animals, the primary sign of dental disease is weight loss. No animal wants to chew food if it is painful. Goats can also develop swelling due to dental abscess, have increased salivation, and halitosis due to dental disease. Abnormalities of the cheek teeth can also cause packing of feed material in the mouth, giving the cheeks a “chipmunk” appearance. Particularly as goats age, dental disease should always be a consideration in goats that are doing poorly.  

An assessment of the incisors can give an idea as to age and oral health. Adult incisors that are worn down, gapped, or absent indicate age and possible further disease of the cheek teeth. Examination of the incisors can pair with body condition assessment and stage of life. This information can help determine if an older animal needs special care, such as increased feeding, or is a candidate for culling from the herd.  

To fully assess dental health, your goat can be examined by your veterinarian. A complete oral assessment requires special tools and training. A mouth gag, or speculum, is necessary to hold the mouth open, and a bright light source and mirror are necessary to visualize all aspects of the teeth. As most goats are not amenable to having a speculum placed in their mouths, this also means that sedation of some nature is required. Due to the progressive growth of the cheek teeth, one of the most common abnormalities found in goat oral exams is an overgrowth of the cheek teeth. This can lead to abnormal chewing and sometimes sharp enamel points that damage the mouth’s soft tissues. In cases of this dental overgrowth, the veterinarian may need to grind down or float the goat’s teeth, much like the procedure performed frequently in horses. This process must be undertaken with care, especially when using motorized grinders, as the tooth can be damaged if the instrument is not properly used. Careful examination can also indicate damaged or overwork teeth that may require extraction. A thorough veterinary examination with appropriate treatment can ensure that a goat’s teeth are chewing to the best of their ability.  

Dental care and assessment can be valuable tools in extending the life of goats. Particularly in older goats, dental disease should be considered as a cause of weight loss and poor performance. Easy examination of the incisors can indicate age, indicate overall oral health, and be useful in identifying animals that may be struggling to chew appropriately. Advanced dental care involves thorough examination and treatment by your herd veterinarian. While not all animals will warrant the extra expense of advanced dentistry, valuable and cherished goats may benefit from veterinary dental care.  

Sources:

Canpolat, Ibrahim; Karabulut, Enis; Cakir, Sema. 2017/08/20. The Effect on Production Loss of Dental Disorders in Adult Goats v10 10.9790/2380-1008017680. Journal of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322622553_The_Effect_on_Production_Loss_of_Dental_Disorders_in_Adult_Goats 

https://www.merckvetmanual.com/digestive-system/dentistry/overview-of-dentistry-in-large-animals

https://goats.extension.org/goat-dentition/

Originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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