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Canine teeth in horses: all you need to know

Canine teeth are usually absent or less developed in female horses, but erupt in most male horses by the time they are between four-and-a-half and five years old.

They are situated in the interdental space (between the incisors and cheek teeth). The lower canines sit behind the corner incisors, and are generally further forward than those in the upper jaw.

Originally “fighting teeth”, they have no occlusal contact, i.e. the opposing upper and lower canines do not meet, so they are of no benefit in the eating process.

They can be 5-7cm long, most of which is reserve crown (not visible above the gum). The lower canines especially are prone to a build-up of tartar – sometimes to the extent that the tooth resembles a large, light brown acorn in appearance.

If left, tartar will lead to gum disease (gingivitis), so a qualified equine dental technician (EDT) or vet should remove any such build-up during routine checks and possibly advise the owner to brush the canines with a toothbrush a few times per week to prevent further tartar.

Sometimes canines may have a delayed eruption, not fully emerging until the horse is six years old or even older – this may be a normal variation in some horses.

In other cases the canines may permanently lie superficially beneath the gum, so-called “blind canines”, where the overlying gum may be swollen, bruised and sore. Advice should be sought from a vet or a qualified EDT.

Although canines do not continue to erupt throughout the horse’s life in the same way as other teeth, by the time some geldings or stallions reach middle-age their canines may have become tall and sharp.

Such teeth are potentially serious weapons, posing a significant risk to the owner’s hands when fitting the bridle, to operators during dental examinations and treatments, to other horses in fights, or even to the horse itself, by damaging the tongue or catching and breaking the tooth on some fixed object.

Any concerns over these teeth should be discussed with a vet or EDT, who may advise that canines be reduced and filed smooth.

Canine teeth

  • A horse may occasionally develop displacement of canine teeth that can cut the cheeks or even stick out of the mouth when it is bitted
  • Extraction of canines is a major procedure requiring x-rays and extensive jaw surgery to remove the deeply embedded reserve crown and so only the displaced, visible crown will usually be ground away. Prominent, tall canines can reduce the space for the tongue so some horses may suffer tongue pain due to excessive bit pressure.
  • If the space between the canines and cheek teeth is short, there may not be enough room to fit a double bridle.

H&H (14 March 2002)

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