Wolf Teeth in Horses

Proper attention to your horse’s wolf teeth can make him a happier horse under saddle .

The term "wolf teeth" is a commonly used, but poorly understood, part of the horse owner's vocabulary. My veterinary practice is devoted exclusively to equine dentistry. I suspect more than half of the owners who tell me or ask me about their horses' wolf teeth have no idea what those teeth actually are or where they are located. Let's shed some light on the subject.

The wolf teeth are thought to be vestigial (incompletely developed) premolars that have, over the millennia, shrunk in size to what they are today: small, nonfunctional teeth that can cause problems for the domestic horse. They are located in the "bars" of the mouth (the area between the incisors and the grinding cheek teeth), usually just in front of the second premolar (the first grinding cheek tooth). They can be difficult for an owner to see since they lie well behind the corners of the mouth, and most horses don't tolerate examination of the mouth very well without sedation.

Wolf teeth are not to be confused with the much larger canine teeth located closer to the center of the bars in stallions and geldings. Mares will occasionally have canines that are smaller than those in males, but they are also located much farther forward than wolf teeth.

Veterinarians have observed that 13-32% of horses develop wolf teeth. They occur in both genders, but females might be slightly more likely to have them. Horses can have from zero to four wolf teeth. The usual configuration is two wolf teeth, one on either side of the upper jaw. But some horses have them on the lower jaw in addition to or instead of the upper.

A heavy periodontal ligament holds the cheek teeth and incisors to the bone. Wolf teeth typically have very small roots with comparatively weak attachments. They are actually simple brachydont (as seen in dogs, cats, humans, etc.) teeth, which makes them a bit of an anomaly in the horse's mouth, since most of the rest of the teeth are of the hypsodont type. Hypsodont teeth erupt gradually over the horse's lifetime, while brachydont teeth are fully erupted by the time the animal reaches physical maturity. The canine teeth and wolf teeth are brachydont-type teeth, while the incisors, premolars, and molars are all hypsodont teeth. For a visual of all these teeth, see page 58.

Wolf Teeth Removal

Most veterinarians recommend removing any wolf teeth before introducing the bit or tack such as a cavesson, noseband, hack-amore, or bosal to a young horse. The reason behind this recommendation is that these teeth tend to be pointed, and their location just behind the corners of the mouth makes them likely to cause significant discomfort or pain when the soft tissues of the lips or cheek are pulled or pressed against them.

Wolf teeth extraction usually is a simple procedure performed under sedation and local anesthesia. The attachments of the teeth are undermined with a root elevator. This loosens the tooth, which can then be wiggled out of the alveolus (socket) with forceps. This procedure typically takes anywhere from two to 20 minutes.

Occasionally, wolf teeth are extremely large with long, heavy roots, and in those cases extraction can take quite a bit longer. Sometimes the attachments are very superficial, and the teeth will shed unaided along with the deciduous second premolar when the horse is about 2½ years old. This might explain the large variation in occurrence of wolf teeth in the horse.

Once wolf teeth are extracted, no aftercare is needed, and the open sockets heal from the inside out in about one week. An owner should not use a bit during the healing process.

Occasionally a wolf tooth can be fractured during extraction, leaving a portion of the root behind. If this occurs, one of two things usually happens: Either the root tip will resorb and no further treatment is needed, or the remaining root tip will work its way out to the surface over a period of weeks or months. The root fragment then can be easily removed, as its attachments are loose or nonexistent.

I have never experienced--nor have I heard of--a serious complication from a broken wolf tooth. The migrating fracture fragment can, of course, cause the same discomfort for the horse when it reaches the surface as a normal wolf tooth. Removal of the fragment is curative.

Sometimes wolf teeth are present but unerupted. That is, they might migrate a short distance along the bars of the mouth toward the incisors, but never push through the gums. In those cases they are not readily visible. But often these unerupted teeth can cause more discomfort for the horse than the normal presentation. It is, therefore, important for your veterinarian to palpate the gums very carefully to rule out the presence of unerupted wolf teeth, even if he or she doesn't see any on visual examination.

In most circumstances, unerupted wolf teeth can be extracted very simply with sedation, local anesthetic, and a small incision through the gingivae (gums) over the unerupted tooth. Usually sutures are not necessary, and complete healing occurs in about a week.

Comfort With The Bit

Wolf teeth removal is the first step of developing what is commonly called a "bit seat." This term is another in the horseman's vocabulary that is commonly used, but poorly understood. Thus, veterinary dental practitioners are striving to eliminate the term because it creates too many misconceptions. As noted earlier, when the rider uses a bit, hackamore, or noseband of any kind as part of the communication link with the horse, some part of that tack is going to impact the soft tissues near the wolf teeth and the upper second premolars. When a rider takes up contact with the bit, the bit pulls back on the corners of the mouth and the soft, sensitive tissues of the cheek just behind them. These tissues can be pulled into contact with the wolf teeth and the upper second premolars. If any of those teeth have sharp projections, the soft tissues can be injured.

Many nosebands and hackamores come down over the face just over the side of the upper second premolar. They can exert enough pressure to ulcerate the cheek if those teeth have sharp edges (see the top image on page 39).

In addressing this area of the horse's mouth, a veterinarian removes any wolf teeth, then smooths all sharp enamel projections from the front and side of the upper second premolar and sometimes the forward portion of the upper third premolar, depending on the individual horse.

A horse that carries a bit might need his lower second premolars addressed, too. The bit flattens the tongue beneath it and might force the tongue into increased contact with the lower second premolar. Therefore, it can be helpful to have your veterinary dental provider smooth the front and inside edges of those teeth. An observant veterinarian can customize a patient's dental care to accommodate differences between individuals, including a large, thick tongue, low palate, narrow mouth, specific riding discipline, double bridle, or special tack.

Despite the hype surrounding this procedure, it is not a dramatic treatment. It's important to note that overly aggressive reshaping of these teeth can be quite dangerous, however.

For instance, sensitive tissues within the tooth can be irritated, causing the patient unnecessary pain. It is also possible to open a pulp horn (which carries the main blood and nerve supply of the tooth) by grinding too much from the front edge or chewing surface of the second premolars. If this occurs, severe inflammation and subsequent death of the tooth is likely. A prudent practitioner will only remove enough of the enamel edges to keep the horse comfortable for the ensuing nine to 12 months. Properly addressed mouths will need touch-ups within 12 months. The chewing surfaces should not be impacted.

Take-Home Message

Preventive dental exams should not only include a search for hooks, ramps, and waves that need to be corrected to allow your horse to chew, but they should also include study of the whole mouth, including an examination for wolf teeth in young or newly acquired horses. With proper attention from a veterinarian, horses can enjoy their work pain-free instead of constantly fighting their bridle or bit because of mouth pain.

About the Author

Mary DeLorey, DVM

Mary S. DeLorey, DVM earned her veterinary degree from University of Missouri in 1992. Since 2000, she has devoted her entire professional energies to equine dentistry. Her practice, Northwest Equine Dentistry, Inc. serves the states of Washington and Idaho and is based near Seattle. Dr. DeLorey has traveled internationally to instruct veterinarians in equine dentistry techniques and speaks to horse owners nationwide. She trail rides and raises sport ponies from her ranch in Eastern Washington when she's not on the road.

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