Health Hazards from Broken and Missing Teeth
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Who would guess that washing dishes at the kitchen sink could save an animal’s life? But that’s what happened recently when Megan Amick of Fallon, Nevada looked out the window when reaching for a sponge.
“I noticed that Fonzy, our older Nigerian Dwarf goat, was thrashing about the ground,” she vividly remembers. “I dropped a bowl and yelled for my husband as I dashed out the door, wondering what could be the matter. Fonzy had never had any health issues, despite coming from a questionable background before we bought him from an individual who had no prior information on him. We’re guessing he’s around eight years old. He fit right into our family immediately, enjoying a contented life with our other four goats that we have as pets.”
A rush of adrenaline took over when reaching their beloved goat. Daulton, immediately grabbed Fonzy’s hind legs, elevating his body up as Megan leaned over, placing her arms around his torso, making a fist with her hands as she pushed up and forward on the rib cage. Fortunately, the procedure for performing the Heimlich maneuver kicked in from previous work as an Aviation Boatswain Mate Handler (ABH) in the Navy. CPR courses were mandatory for such personnel launching and recovering naval aircraft from land and sea.
“I’ll never forget the look in Fonzy’s eyes as we raced to his side,” says Megan. “He was pleading for his life, hoping we’d come to his rescue. I’m so glad Daulton was there, as I’m not sure what I could have done being alone in that situation. After a few good pushes on his chest and massaging his throat, a piece of sliced apple finally flew out of his mouth. Fonzy then scampered off as if nothing had happened, leaving the two of us collapsed on the ground in total shock from the experience.”
After the choking episode with Fonzy, Megan decided to take a look at his mouth. She had noticed recently that he had an odd way of rolling his jaw while eating; something was amiss.
To her surprise, she noticed his gums had receded some, and few of his teeth had worn down considerably. No wonder he was having issues with eating. So, she immediately began researching more about ruminant digestion and dental concerns. The family didn’t have a local veterinarian with experience and knowledge in goats, but that didn’t stop Megan from exploring more and talking with other goat owners.
“Being a mom means going the extra mile for your children and your animals,” says Megan. “I remember when my two daughters were toddlers. I cut everything into small bits so they wouldn’t choke on any food. I did the same with the goats, meticulously cubing their fruit and vegetables into little pieces. I’ve always been careful in slicing their treats, but after discovering Fonzy’s dental issues, I really make sure he’s able to chew and swallow each morsel easily. He’s doing great — no issues or incidents since that fateful day.”
Goats are marvelous eating machines. They have teeth specifically made for gathering, chewing, and grinding their food — eight incisor teeth on the lower front jaw in front for tearing off roughage when foraging. Instead of teeth on the upper jaw, they have a thick and strong dental pad, used for gathering, pinching, and mashing plant material in unison with the tongue and lower teeth. They have both premolars and molars at the back of the mouth — three pairs each on the top and bottom jaws, equaling 24 molars that help shred and grind plant material, and in turn, chew their cud when regurgitated.
The life expectancy for goats is eight to 18 years, varying by breed and regular healthcare. Depending on the individual animals and their eating habits, their gums can begin to recede, and the incisors appear elongated and loose, usually by age five. Some teeth may break or wear down with age, causing problems with properly grinding their food. It then becomes difficult to swallow, causing an obstruction in the pharynx (throat) and esophagus.
Over time, with repetitive motion, goats’ teeth may form sharp ridges, limiting the effectiveness of chewing properly. It’s then necessary for a veterinarian to “float” the affected teeth, filing off sharp points in order to prevent damage to the soft tissue of the cheeks and tongue. Animals with missing or chipped teeth are often referred to as “broken mouthed.” They definitely should be seen by a veterinarian as the situation can cause pain and interfere with eating.
Dr. Chris Duemler of Brodhead Veterinary Medical Center in Brodhead, Wisconsin, says dental issues in aging goats are something to be aware of. “Broken and worn teeth can cause a host of problems, so the goat owner needs to better understand an animal’s ability to gather, eat, and digest their food. Goats are remarkable and sturdy creatures, but like all mammals, they experience aging, especially living longer with more people raising them as family pets. This is a commitment for the owner, reassuring that each animal ages well and comfortably. Veterinary care can help address any dental or other issues along the way.”
Dr. Duemler explained more about choking in goats, “It’s really quite rare. Some animals might ingest their feed too quickly, causing some sputtering, coughing, and spitting, but I hardly ever see any serious ramifications on my rounds. As mentioned, it’s usually the result of worn and broken teeth. I have noticed some cases of esophageal obstructions in some rambunctious bucks, where sparring and charging one another with their horns can cause injury to the neck and other parts of the body. Over time, scar tissue builds up in the esophagus, resulting in a narrower pathway for ingested food to pass onto the four-compartment stomach. Avoiding such a situation means separating the animals from continuing such rowdy behavior.”
As goats age, it’s also important to monitor a goat’s weight to ensure they are getting enough to eat. Talk to your veterinarian, goat associations, county extension office, breeders, and other goat owners for advice on specific feed and nutritional needs in aging animals. Knowledge is key.
Hopefully, no one will have to experience a choking episode as Megan did with Fonzy. One might not imagine an eight-year-old goat to be considered elderly, but when it comes to dental issues, situations can arise and cause a variety of problems. It’s best to be aware, so there’s no emergency outside the kitchen window or barnyard gate!
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Goat Journal — Goat Health from Head to Hoof Vol. 2 — and regularly vetted for accuracy.