Horse Health

Horse Wolf Teeth

December 15, 2011

It’s a standard procedure to pull the wolf teeth in a riding horse.

Wolf Tooth Diagram

This diagram shows the location of wolf teeth. Journal illustration.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

They say they are annoying to the horse.

They cause bitting problems.

They are not needed.

They need to be pulled.

These are the comments from trainer who routinely have wolf teeth pulled from riding horses.

“As a general rule, I recommend that  wolf teeth be pulled on all horses, and I would especially advise doing so on performance horses and racehorses,” says equine practitioner and reining horse competitor Dr. Tim Bartlett of Vincennes, Indiana. “It’s one less problem to worry about, and there is no purpose for them.”

Wolf teeth are frequently present in front of the second premolar, or first cheek tooth, and are the first permanent premolars to erupt in the horse’s mouth. They are usually located on both sides of the upper jaw, but they can also form in the lower jaw and if found there are often smaller.

“Occasionally, only one tooth may develop,” Dr. Bartlett says.

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These horse wolf teeth appear in both sexes, and generally erupt by the fifth or sixth month, whereas the neighboring permanent second premolar doesn’t surface until 2 1/2 years. Wolf teeth have considerable variation in shape, size and location. They could be two to three centimeters in front of the second premolar or could even be imbedded against it. Usually they are somewhat tubercular, but occasionally one is observed with a crown, resembling a small molar.

“They can be anywhere from flat and sharp to round. The size of a wolf tooth can be from five to approximately 15 millimeters wide,” Dr. Bartlett says.

Wolf teeth are vestigial teeth, meaning they are remnants of teeth that were well developed in the Eocene ancestors of the horse. However, in the modern horse, they appear to have no function. Dr. Bartlett speculates that since horse wolf teeth are similar in appearance to canine teeth but smaller, that is probably why they are called wolf teeth.

Horses that shake or throw their heads, duck away and mouth the bit could be experiencing wolf-teeth problems.

“People have become more aware of mouth problems, rather than thinking it’s just the horse’s attitude,” Dr. Bartlett says. “I have found that as a veterinarian and rider, a lot of training problems can be eliminated by routine dental care.”

When a rider is having trouble bitting a horse, he should look in the animal’s mouth or have his veterinarian examine the horse to see if there might be a reason why the horse is rejecting the bit.

Often, snaffle bits will irritate wolf teeth when they are pulled up into the corners of the horse’s mouth. Wolf teeth are even more of a problem in the lower jaw.

“Any bit, but particularly one with a heavy, solid mouthpiece, can cause swelling and pain when it hits the tooth,” Dr. Bartlett says. “There are some cases where wolf teeth won’t bother a horse and he adapts to having them. But I’ve also known where bitting has caused wolf teeth to shatter and break off, which may result in abscesses and a more compound problem. Although it may be possible to fight through such situations, it’s much better to remove the teeth.”

Dr. Bartlett explains that the easiest time to remove wolf teeth is when they first erupt through the gum line.

“I like to remove them when the horse is a long yearling or 2-year-old, and before you put a bit in its mouth,” he says.

One of the problems of removing the teeth too early is that they will tend to break off. Also, if the teeth have not broken the gum line, it’s more painful to the horse to dig them out.

“I think it’s important to remove the tooth intact – the whole tooth and the root. Occasionally, I might break one off, particularly a small, deeply rooted tooth that’s somewhat fragile. Usually, it won’t cause any problems if it’s broken off below the gum line. I’ll smooth that tooth to remove any rough edges, and I advise the owner to make sure that the tooth does not grow back through the gum line at a later date.”

The removal of wolf teeth is much simpler than extracting permanent cheek teeth, which is a difficult job, requiring considerable force and usually performed under general anesthesia. Since wolf teeth are normally small, with short roots, they usually can be removed relatively easily by using only a tranquilizer-analgesic combination.

“I almost always use a twitch on the horse or other forms of mechanical restraint, and I will use stocks if they are available,” Dr. Bartlett says. “Also, if I happen to have a young horse under general anesthesia for a minor or routine procedure, such as castration, and if time and conditions permit, I will examine the mouth and perform dental procedures such as the removal of wolf teeth. There are also some difficult wolf teeth extractions that require general anesthesia.”

After examining the mouth and before extracting wolf teeth, the veterinarian will flush the mouth with water and a mild disinfectant. He will begin by floating the horse’s teeth. “I’m careful not to disturb the wolf teeth,” Dr. Bartlett says.

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When Dr. Bartlett is ready to detach the wolf teeth, he uses dental elevators, which loosen the gum tissue around the tooth. With the elevators, he will work up under the tooth and then pry it loose. He may also use wolf teeth forceps to aid in the tooth’s removal.

While extracting wolf teeth, Dr. Bartlett will often pull the deciduous incisors (caps) and the deciduous premolars and molars as needed.

“You need to pull the teeth when they are ready to come out or these teeth will fall out, but a lot of these will have to be manually extracted.”

After removing the teeth, Dr. Bartlett re-examines the mouth and may choose to refloat the teeth near the wolf teeth. He recommends giving the horse a week to 10 days of rest in order to heal.

“If you are on a tight training schedule, you can ride the colt with a hackamore or side-pull,” Dr. Bartlett says.

Most trainers are adamant about pulling wolf teeth, and to most veterinarians, it’s a standard procedure. For the horse, it’s one way to keep him liking the bit.