Homesteader's Guide to Farm Animal Dentistry: Estimating Age by Reading Teeth

For homesteaders who own one or more pigs, horses, cows and more learn the practical aspect of applied animal dentistry: estimating age by reading teeth.

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    Two views of a horse's teeth, which are predominately incisors, premolars, and molars.
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    Views of a cow's teeth and horse's teeth. Note the longitudinal view revealing the composition of horse teeth and cross the section revealing how horse teeth change in appearance as they wear over time.

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The question which is probably most frequently asked before an animal changes ownership is, "How old is he (or she)?" The actual age—within broad limits—of the cow or whatever, of course, is really not as important as that query might imply. What is important is the degree of development and the potential remaining usefulness of the creature being considered for purchase . . . and both these conditions are often directly reflected by the animal's teeth.

To be productive, a farm animal—say a cow—must consume large quantities of feed . . . a task that becomes increasingly difficult—even impossible—as her teeth become badly worn or missing. Thus, even a "young" cow can be non-productive if her teeth are "old".

Animal Teeth Are Like People Teeth

With certain exceptions—to be noted later—the dental appendages of animals are very similar to those of humans. All the higher vertebrates—cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, goats, etc.—commonly found in the barnyard have two sets of teeth. The first—called temporary, milk, or deciduous teeth—are replaced (at fairly predictable times) by permanent teeth as an animal grows older.

Livestock also exhibit individual tooth structure—pulp, dentine, enamel, and cement—very much like our own. In most cases, each tooth is divided into parts called the root (hidden in the gums) and the crown (exposed and covered with enamel). The place at which the root and crown join is commonly known as the neck of a tooth.

The Dental Formula

Animal teeth are classified as incisors, canines, premolars, and molars . . . and veterinary anatomists have a very concise method of writing this information in a "dental formula".

The dental formula for an adult male horse looks like this:

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