Wolf teeth in horses are short teeth sometimes found in the space between the front and cheek teeth on both sides of the upper jaw. Wolf teeth are normal but have no particular function for horses.

Many horses do not have wolf teeth. But when they are present, they typically cause no pain, do not interfere with the bit, and do not cause other health issues.

Wolf teeth have traditionally been removed from horses to support dental care, but recent evidence suggests this is not necessary unless their presence is causing symptoms or interfering with training. Signs of problematic wolf teeth include pain, sores on the gums, lips, inner cheek or tongue, and discomfort on the bit.

Diagnosing the presence of wolf teeth is usually possible through visual and manual inspection of the horse’s mouth. X-rays may be used to confirm diagnosis in some cases. Possible complications from extraction include tooth fragments remaining in the tooth socket and severing of the palatine artery.

What are Wolf Teeth in Horses?

Wolf Teeth are short, simply structured, functionless teeth that are found in the space between the incisors (front teeth) and molars (cheek teeth) of the horse. [2][3] This area, called the interdental space, is where the bit sits in the horse’s mouth. [2][3]

Wolf teeth are easily confused with canine teeth, which are different. Although both occupy the interdental space, canine teeth are found beside the incisors at the front, whereas wolf teeth are found beside the cheek teeth at the back. [3]

While wolf teeth are typically located at the back of the interdental space on both sides of the upper jaw, they can also appear closer to the front of the jaw. [1][3]

Rarely, wolf teeth emerge from the lower jaw, only one side, or two wolf teeth develop on each side (double wolf teeth). [1][2][3]

Wolf teeth can vary in appearance and structure: they can be large, small, have roots or not, have a pointed or flat appearance, and can lean or rotate as they erupt from the gums. [2]

Some, called blind wolf teeth, are present in the jaw without pushing through the gums. These are more likely to be rotated or tilted in different directions. [2]

Why do Horses Have Wolf Teeth?

Wolf teeth play no role in chewing or grasping food. [2] They are vestigial, meaning they are a holdover from an earlier time in equine evolution when all horses had wolf teeth.

Over many generations of evolution and domestication, wolf teeth no longer served a meaningful function, and the horse’s dental layout changed. As a result, wolf teeth are not always present in the modern horse. [2]

Should I Have my Horse’s Wolf Teeth Removed?

For many years, horse care included routine removal of wolf teeth under the assumption they interfere with the bit, or to prevent the development of discomfort and dental disease. [1]

This practice is currently a matter of debate because in most cases, normally sized and positioned wolf teeth cause no pain or problem, do not require extraction, and often fall out over the course of the horse’s lifespan without intervention. [1][2][4]

On the other hand, some trainers and veterinarians prefer to have wolf teeth extracted anyway. In these cases, the justification for extraction is to avoid breakage or dental disease, to prevent interference with the bit, and to make teeth floating behind the wolf teeth easier to perform. [1]

For owners seeking a compromise between these two viewpoints, some veterinarians suggest shaping wolf teeth as part of the bit seat. [2]

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Risk Factors

Not all horses develop wolf teeth, and reports of their prevalence vary widely. Estimates of how many horses develop wolf teeth overall range from 13 to 90%. [1][3]

Mares are more likely to develop wolf teeth than male horses, with reports indicating almost 25% of female horses develop wolf teeth versus 15% of males. [2][3]

In rare cases, wolf teeth develop the structure of a molar, which is referred to as molarization. [1] Horse molars continue to grow throughout their lifetime and are kept at an appropriate length by the action of grinding against the molar on the opposite jaw. [3]

Molarized wolf teeth have no opposite tooth to grind against, so they continue to grow unimpeded. [1] This results in an overly long tooth that can interfere with the soft tissues in the mouth and difficulty taking the bit. [1] In these cases, the wolf teeth require shortening or extraction. [1]

Some breeds of horses such as Clydesdales have a higher incidence of large molarized wolf teeth. [1]

Wolf teeth typically develop between the ages of 6 to 18 months, with some horses developing them as late as two years of age. [1][2]

Wolf teeth are not preceded by deciduous (baby) teeth and are often shed along with other deciduous teeth, leading some experts to believe that they are deciduous themselves. [2]

Symptoms

In some instances, especially when wolf teeth are loose, enlarged, broken or displaced, the soft tissues of the mouth can start to show signs of pain and irritation.

Symptoms of mouth irritation related to wolf teeth may include: [1][4]

  • Bleeding or sores on the cheek lining, lips or tongue
  • Discomfort with the bit
  • Pain and sores on the gums
  • Difficulty taking the bit

Diagnosis

The presence of wolf teeth is confirmed with visual and physical inspection of the horse’s mouth. [2] In cases where blind wolf teeth are present and cannot be felt through the gum, X-rays are required for definitive diagnosis. [2]

In most cases, even with confirmation that wolf teeth are present, no treatment is necessary unless further symptoms such as pain, sores on the soft tissues of the mouth, or difficulty accommodating the bit occur. [2]

In rare cases, wolf teeth develop on the lower jaw. [1][2] Due to their location, these typically interfere with the use of the bit and require extraction. [1]

Treatment

The practice of extracting wolf teeth that are not causing symptoms is controversial. [2] In some cases, veterinarians extract the wolf teeth to avoid problems in the future. [2] In others, extraction is performed at the request of the owner or trainer. [2]

Extraction is usually recommended in the following cases of wolf teeth: [2][4]

  • Oral pain or sores are developing
  • Use of the bit is impeded
  • Wolf teeth are in the lower jaw
  • Molarized wolf teeth are present

Extraction Procedures

Most veterinarians recommend horses are fully vaccinated against tetatnus before a dental extraction. A full physical and oral examination are also performed before the extraction procedure. [2]

Sedation

The extraction of wolf teeth takes place with the horse under standing sedation or with the help of a nerve block. [2][3]

Standing sedation puts the horse in a semiconscious state. This practice ensures the horse is sedated sufficiently to reduce anxiety and pain but remains conscious and in control of their airway. [5] This type of sedation lowers the risk of catastrophic injuries associated with general anesthesia and allows for a same day procedure without in-patient hospitalization. [5]

Tooth Removal

In most cases, wolf teeth extraction is performed by an equine dentistry specialist. [2] Once sedated, the horse is physically restrained. [3] A local anesthetic is administered inside the mouth near the wolf tooth. [4]

The tooth is removed by force and inspected to verify no fragments are left behind in the socket. [2] In the case of blind wolf teeth, an incision is made in the gum and any overlaying bone is removed before the tooth itself is extracted. [2]

Postoperative Care

Postoperative care for the horse following removal of wolf teeth includes: [2]

  • Withholding food for 1 to 2 hours to prevent choking
  • Feeding soft food for 3 to 5 days
  • Avoiding exercise for 48 hours
  • Forgoing use of a bit for 10 to 14 days

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are advised for between 3 to 5 days. [2] Antibiotics may be prescribed if there is risk of infection or if one was found on bloodwork prior to the procedure. [2]

Complications

In general, wolf teeth are relatively easy to remove because the connection between the tooth and the surrounding structures is not as robust as with other teeth. [2] However, there are some risks associated with extraction. [2][6]

There is a risk of breaking the wolf tooth during extraction. [2][6] In some cases, especially if a dental fragment sits deep in tooth socket, breakage is not a concern, and no further action is required. [6]

In other instances, the fragment protrudes above the tooth socket into the gumline, which can cause pain and inflammation that interfere with the use of a bit. If this occurs, a second surgery under general anesthetic to remove it may be necessary. [6]

Ideally, the practitioner performing the initial extraction is able to identify and proactively remove such fragments to prevent further complication.

With any equine dentistry surgery, there is a general risk of severing the palatine artery in error if an instrument slips during surgery. This can lead to profuse bleeding. [6]

In such cases, pressure is applied to the wound to control bleeding and the horse is kept head-up in a deeply bedded, dark stall until the bleeding stops. [6]

Summary

Wolf teeth are vestigial teeth that develop in the mouths of some horses. They are generally harmless and do not require extraction unless they cause irritation or difficulty taking the bit.

  • Wolf teeth are found in the interdental space and do not serve a functional purpose
  • Female horses are more likely to develop wolf teeth than males
  • In cases where wolf teeth are sharp, broken, overly large or molarized, cause pain, sores, or difficult taking the bit, extraction is necessary
  • Possible complications of extraction include tooth breakage and the severing of the palatine artery

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References

  1. Easley, J. Corrective dental procedures, in Equine Dentistry. Elsevier. 2011.
  2. Hole, S. L. Wolf Teeth and Their Extraction. Equine Vet. Educ. 2016.
  3. Dixon, P. M. and Du Toit, N. Dental anatomy, in Equine Dentistry. Elsevier. 2011.
  4. Griffin, C. The Gold Standard of Dental Care. Vet. Clin. North Am. Equine Pract. 2013. View Summary
  5. Campoy, L. and Sedgwick, S. R. Standing Sedation and Iocoregional Analgesia in Equine Dental Surgery. Vet. Clin. North Am. Equine Pract. 2020. View Summary
  6. Dixon, P. M. et al. Complications of Equine Oral Surgery. Vet. Clin. North Am. Equine Pract. 2008. View Summary