Should wolf teeth always be taken out? H&H investigates…

  • Like chestnuts, ergots and splint bones, wolf teeth in horses have become functionless in the course of evolution. Yet these pointed or peg-shaped curiosities can be surprisingly problematic.

    “Wolf teeth push through the gums when the horse is between five and 12 months old,” says Nadine Page MRCVS, of Page and Gunstone Equine Vets in Cheshire. “Unlike other teeth, they do not continue growing and stay relatively small throughout the horse’s life. They usually emerge only from the top gums, although some horses grow them top and bottom.”

    The location of wolf teeth in the interdental space — the gummy gap between the biting incisors and the molars (cheek teeth) — means that they are sometimes confused with the deeper-rooted “canines” or “tushes” that can emerge in the same area. Canines appear further towards the incisors, however, and are rarely seen in mares. But both sexes can grow wolf teeth — and it’s their situation just in front of the premolars (the first cheek teeth) that can cause discomfort.

    “In most horses, the bit lies in contact with the lower jaw and does not usually interfere with wolf teeth in the upper jaw,” explains Nadine. “Where head carriage is higher, however, in racehorses and some sport horses, the bit can catch the wolf teeth and cause pain. It’s thought that behaviour such as pulling, head-tossing and rearing may be associated with this.

    “Teeth that aren’t tight and close to the premolars seem to be most troublesome.”

    In or out?

    While wolf teeth do not cause discomfort for all horses, some owners choose to have them removed before work starts — just in case. Is routine extraction a good idea?

    “Removal allows better access to premolars so that they can be shaped at rasping, a procedure called bit-seating,” says Nadine. “There’s also less risk of the horse developing behavioural problems or bad habits associated with dental discomfort, and no need for a training break for removal if wolf teeth later prove problematic.

    “There’s no chance, however, to see whether removal is really necessary for that horse.”

    Nadine explains that removal should always be performed on the sedated horse by a vet, or a qualified equine dental technician under veterinary supervision.

    “The preferred method is to use an instrument called an elevator to stretch and separate the periodontal ligament surrounding the tooth,” she says. “This should loosen the tooth sufficiently for easy removal with forceps. There are also instruments that can be used to cut and knock the tooth out.

    “Removal is not without risk — the biggest being damage to the palatine artery in the roof of the mouth, which can cause a nasty bleed. There’s also a possibility of leaving part of the root in the gum, although this is usually absorbed by the body and rarely causes a problem.

    “Extraction can be tricky in the younger horse, where there’s little tooth crown to grasp, or with a ‘blind’ tooth that has yet to erupt through the gum,” she adds.

    “Most removals are straightforward, though, and heal quickly with rest and painkillers. The horse should not be bitted for a few days and the hole should be flushed with water to remove food.”

    Deciding whether to extract first or wait and see is difficult, says Nadine, because knowledge is largely anecdotal or based on opinion.

    “We would generally recommend routine removal of wolf teeth that are not very close to the premolars, as well as those in horses with high head carriage,” she concludes.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 12 October 2017