Horse Dental Care – Wolf Teeth – Leave ‘em in or take ‘em out?
August 20, 2010 by cherryhillhorsekeeping
I’ve heard people around the barn talking about getting the wolf teeth taken out of their horses. What are they and is it necessary? Can my vet do this or do I need to take my horse to a special dentist? Will my horse need to be drugged to do it? I’d rather not have this done unless it is absolutely necessary. Mac
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At the front of your horse’s mouth are the incisors. At the back of the horse’s mouth are the premolars and the molars. In between the incisors and the premolars is a relatively tooth-free space called the interdental space, also called the bars. This is where the bit sets. In the interdental space, there might be certain additional teeth.
Most male horses five years of age and older have four canine teeth in the interdental space located about an inch or two behind the incisors. Some mares (about 20%) have small canines or canine buds, usually on the lower jaw.
Both male and female horses can have wolf teeth. Wolf teeth are actually the first premolars. But they are smaller than the other premolars because they are remnants of teeth from prehistoric horses and through evolution have decreased in size and frequency of appearance. Most, but not all, horses have wolf teeth. They appear more commonly in the upper jaw but can appear in the lower jaw. Wolf teeth start coming in at about six months of age and are fully visible by 12 to 18 months in horses that are going to have them.
Some wolf teeth fall out at about 3 years of age when the horse sheds the temporary second premolar.
Wolf teeth are removed surgically if their size or location could cause painful bumping by the snaffle bit or pinching of the horse’s skin between the wolf teeth and snaffle bit. If a wolf tooth is small and fits tightly up against the second premolar, it might not cause a problem. But if the wolf tooth is large or there is a space between the wolf tooth and second premolar, it is much more likely to result in a problem because the tooth is standing alone, unprotected and the mouthpiece of the bit could hang up in the space between the wolf tooth and the second premolar.
Wolf teeth are usually removed when a yearling colt is gelded to take advantage of the fact that he is already sedated for the castration. With fillies, wolf teeth can be removed anytime after about 12 months of age and before snaffle bit training begins.
Your veterinarian will likely use a sedative and a local anesthetic to perform the extraction. Stocks are an asset for dental work and a twitch may also be used to ensure added control. Most veterinarians use a periosteal elevator to expose as much of the tooth as possible before extraction.
The root of wolf teeth is shallow, about 1/2 inch in young horses. Wolf teeth are relatively soft and can be easily crushed during removal which would be a bad thing. If a tooth splinters during removal and small pieces are left in the jaw, an abscess can result. If a small portion of the root breaks off below the gum line, often the remaining root tip will be absorbed and cause no problem.
So Mac, I’d suggest you have your veterinarian examine your horse and advise you as to whether removing the wolf teeth would be a good idea. It will depend on the size and location of the wolf teeth, the age of your horse, if you use a snaffle bit on your horse, and if you have had any indications that the bit might be contacting the wolf teeth. If your horse has been becoming more difficult to turn or stop or if he throws his head up when you make contact with the rein, then he might be having dental problems and it is possible it could be due to wolf teeth. A thorough dental examination can reveal any problems.
For more information on teeth, refer to these books:
- Deciduous Tooth Eruption schedule
- Permanent Tooth Eruption schedule
- Mouth of 2 year old
- Mouth of Mature horse
- The horse’s jaw
- Dental Warning Signs
- Step-by-step photo guide to mouth exam
- Fit of the snaffle and reactions to the snaffle as it relates to mouth and teeth
Best of luck,
P.S. Sherlock was gelded at 6 months. Since his wolf teeth hadn’t appeared yet, they were not removed at that customary time. At 18 months of age, I saw that he had two medium sized upper wolf teeth. Most wolf teeth are located right next to the premolars but Sherlock’s were about an inch in front of his premolars – that left a dangerous gap that could allow the mouthpiece of a snaffle bit to either bang on the wolf teeth or get caught in between the wolf teeth and the premolars.
So at 24 months of age, with Sherlock backed into the loose stocks, the vet sedated Sherlock and removed his wolf teeth. A simple on-the-farm procedure that took about 10 minutes.
(First photo below) The vet used an adjustable crutch to support Sherlock’s sedated horse’s head. He added extra padding to the underarm pad and it serves as an underchin pad to hold up Sherlock’s head as he works. Richard really liked the crutch!
(Second photo below) The vet used a headlamp to help him see into the dark recesses of Sherlock’s mouth.
(Last photo below) Sherlock’s wolf teeth, showing the very shallow roots. There is about 1/2″ of tooth above the gum and 1/2″ of root below the gum. The wolf tooth on the left has more tissue debris so it only looks longer.