Approximately 70% of horses will develop wolf teeth. While these teeth usually do not pose a health risk to the horse, they are often removed in performance horses to prevent interference with the bit and to avoid traumatizing the soft tissues around the teeth leading to soreness.
Horsemen differ in opinions on when or if these teeth should be removed, but understanding the physiology of wolf teeth can help individual horse owners make the best personal decision for their horses.
Wolf teeth generally emerge between the ages of five and 12 months. Predominantly, the teeth emerge in the upper jaw two to three centimeters in front of the first cheek teeth. Wolf teeth can also erupt adjacent to the first cheek teeth and are present in both colts and fillies.
"The wolf teeth do not serve any real purpose for the horse, and, therefore, removing them does not pose any disruption to chewing," said Glennon Mays, DVM, clinical assistant professor in the Large Animal Hospital at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).
"Millions of years ago, horses were small, forest dwelling animals," Mays said. "They were browsers, not grazers, and the wolf teeth were more prominent because they helped horses eat twigs and brush. But, now, there really isn't any need for them in the modern horse."
Because the wolf teeth are not necessary, and there is a possibility that they can interfere with bit placement in the mouth of performance horses, many horse trainers opt to have them removed before they can potentially cause pain for horses during training.
"The idea is to remove as many excuses as possible for unacceptable behavior in horses throughout the training process and during performance," Mays said. "There is a common understanding that the name 'wolf' teeth is a connotation of 'bad' teeth, that it was the teeth's reputation as bad that led to them being named wolf teeth."
Even with this reputation as a negative, unneeded component of the mouth, owners do not always remove the teeth, especially in horses that do not have erupted wolf teeth or in horses that are not used for performance purposes.
"Removing wolf teeth is a decision you should make with your veterinarian," Mays said. "The procedure is not particularly dangerous, but there are risks with any surgical procedure. There is the possibility of severing or damaging the palatine artery which can cause a great deal of blood loss. Or in horses with large, curved wolf teeth, the curvature of the tooth increases the possibility for complications."
"Sedation and local anesthetic should be used to make the procedure safe and comfortable for the horse," Mays said. "Recovery ranges from about a day to a week depending on the horse and size of the tooth being extracted."
The actual extraction consists of cleaning and flushing the mouth, then using an elevator to cut the gum around the tooth, and then stretch the periodontal ligament in order to loosen the wolf tooth. The tooth is grasped and removed with forceps. Due to the fact that wolf teeth can be a variety of sizes and shapes, the procedure time varies from a couple of minutes to half an hour.
Mays recommended ensuring your horse is vaccinated for tetanus before the procedure. Adequate protection includes an initial vaccination, with a second booster administered four to six weeks following the initial vaccine, then another booster every two to four years. Tetanus bacteria thrive in small, usually hidden puncture-type wounds with little to no oxygen. Therefore, mouth wounds are a prime environment for tetanus bacteria to develop. Tetanus is usually fatal in horses, and mares are often overrepresented as being especially vulnerable (this is largely due to the fact that males are typically vaccinated for tetanus prior to castration).