Wolf teeth in horses: what you need to know about these tiny, yet troublesome, teeth

  • When you first learn that a horse has wolf teeth, you might think he must have sprouted werewolf-like fangs. It is easy to confuse them with the larger canine teeth or tushes. These sit in the middle of each side of the horse’s jaw, between the incisors or biting teeth that fit in front of the bit, and the chewing or molar teeth at the back of the mouth behind the bit. Wolf teeth, however, are usually tiny and not easy to see at all.

    Horse owners are often surprised when the vet shows them the vestigial remnants that are the wolf teeth. The standard responses vary from “Where?” as they peer over, looking for something dramatic to “Oh, is that all it is?” or even the logical: “How can that cause a problem to an animal the size of a horse?” to which it can be hard to provide a satisfactory answer.

    Such comments are valid because we are not talking about elephant tusks here. The majority of horse wolf teeth are only a few sizes larger than the child’s tooth left under the pillow for a tooth fairy to find.

    A wolf tooth that has been removed from a horse's gum.

    A removed wolf tooth next to a penny to show its size.

    When you realise how small and apparently innocuous wolf teeth are, added to the fact that when in their proper anatomical position, they should not interfere with the bit, it is hard to see how they cause a problem. It seems logical that they may irritate if there is something unusual, such as a loose wolf tooth that may wobble uncomfortably, a tooth that has erupted in the wrong place or a particularly sharp tooth. Otherwise, they may be best left alone, on the basis that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

    Do wolf teeth need to be removed?

    The role of wolf teeth in causing oral discomfort has been widely debated and is controversial. Tradition and client pressure are the most common reasons for their removal. Also, cynically, whoever extracts them will earn a fee. So historically wolf teeth removal has been customary practice, as it can be preferable to do something to the horse rather than modify other factors, such as riding style.

    I believe most wolf teeth cause no problem to the horse, but do concern their human connections. This is because:

    • The presence of a wolf tooth can affect the rasping of molars to form a bit seat, This is when the edge of the second check tooth is rounded to accommodate the bit and is said to be beneficial to the performance horse
    • Displaced or sharp wolf teeth can cause pain on the cheeks when pressure is put on by the bit and bridle
    • Some wolf teeth do become loose, diseased or associated with persistent ulceration, which may cause pain
    • There are cases where wolf teeth problems have been blamed for all sorts of horrors, such as headshaking.

    Without a proper scientific trial controlling other factors such as tack, rider and many other variables, it is impossible to know if wolf teeth hinder a horse.

    If done properly, effective wolf tooth extraction is unlikely to be harmful. The fact that the horse has some time off while the gum wound is healing may also allow other issues to subside. Following extraction, the horse should not be ridden for up to two weeks, or sometimes even longer, while the gum heals and any bruising goes down.

    How are wolf teeth are removed?

    Wolf teeth extraction can usually be successfully performed in the standing, conscious horse. There are specially designed cylindrical or half-curved dental elevators that are used, along with various dental luxators and forceps. The objective is to extract the tooth without it fracturing or causing discomfort to the horse.

    Not only can the wolf tooth snap off, but also it is possible to cause inadvertent damage to the palatal artery, which lies nearby within the roof of the mouth. If this blood vessel is damaged, it will result in a profuse haemorrhage that will be unpleasant for the horse, alarming for the handler and embarrassing for the individual performing the extraction. To make life easy for all concerned, it can help to sedate the horse and administer painkillers and local anaesthetics as necessary.

    It is also important that the horse is vaccinated against tetanus before or at the time the tooth is removed. Technically, the procedure does not require strength, but practical skill and expertise help things to go smoothly.

    Who should take wolf teeth out?

    Any dental procedures such as the extraction of wolf teeth should only be carried out by those with training and experience in the use of the required instrumentation.

    At the time of writing, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are debating amendment of the Veterinary Surgeons’ Act 1966 so that it may be possible for removal of a normal, fully erupted and non-displaced wolf tooth to be performed legally by properly qualified equine dental technicians (EDTs), who have passed the requisite examinations and have appropriate insurance cover.

    In many cases the horse will require sedation and medication, so the presence of a vet will be required, as it is illegal for anyone other than a vet to prescribe and treat a horse with local anaesthetics, sedatives, anti-tetanus vaccinations or other medication. Any advanced dental procedure or surgical procedure must be performed by a vet.

    If in doubt, ask your vet (or consult www.beva.org.uk, the equine vets website) or the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians: www.equinedentistry.org.uk

    It is important to remember the aim, as famously described by JG Lane FRCVS, a well-recognised equine vet and surgical specialist, is to “remove the right tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth!”

    • This veterinary feature was first published in Horse & Hound (28 September, ’06)

    You may like...