If you take a quick peek into your horse’s mouth, you’ll immediately be struck by just how different their teeth are from our own. All the typical types of teeth including incisors, premolars, and molars are there. However, just in front of the premolars you may notice there are stubbly, blunt teeth that don’t seem to have too much reason for being there.
These are known as equine wolf teeth. And, before you ask, no: they don’t have any relation to dogs, wolves, or other canines. Regardless of why they’re called wolf teeth, one question persists among horse owners: what are you supposed to do with wolf teeth? Leave them in? Pull them out at first sight?
To help settle this question, we’ve written up the following blog where we’ll explore what wolf teeth are, what problems they cause, what you should do about them, and how to ensure a safe, comfortable recovery.
What are Equine Wolf Teeth?
While “wolf teeth” might sound like some sort of horrible disfigurement or disorder, they’re actually completely natural. Wolf teeth are small, often pointed or peg-shaped teeth that grow just in front of a horse’s first premolars. Technically, they’re known as a horse’s first premolars since they erupt in the mouth between five months and twelve months of age.
Wolf teeth belong to a category of teeth known as brachydont teeth, meaning they erupt all at once and stop growing upon full eruption. This is different from the behavior of the other class of teeth, known as hypsodont teeth, which erupt gradually throughout a horse’s lifetime. A horse’s incisors, premolars, and molars are hypsodont teeth.
However, unlike their incisors, premolars, and molars, wolf teeth don’t really have any use for modern horses; they’re a vestigial structure left over from horse’s ancestors. Fossil records show that equus caballus, the much smaller, ancient precursor to the modern horse, survived on a very different diet than today’s horses, often eating low bushes and shrubs. As a result, their mouths were built to hold seven teeth in each dental arcade.
As their diets evolved to include more grass, horses grew bigger and, consequently, their teeth increased in size to provide larger surface area for chewing and grinding. When this happened, the 1st cheek tooth, known today as the wolf tooth, was no longer necessary and gradually disappeared across successive generations. However, as with humans’ wisdom teeth, many horses still develop wolf teeth to this day. While more commonly reported in male horses, they can develop in both sexes.
Additionally, while it’s more common to see wolf teeth develop on the upper jaws, they can erupt on the lower and upper jaws. A wolf tooth can erupt on a single side of the mouth or both, and they can be uni- or multi-rooted. Sometimes, wolf teeth can even fail to erupt at all (this is known as blind wolf teeth).
What Problems do Wolf Teeth Cause?
As with humans’ wisdom teeth, many horses live just fine with their wolf teeth fully intact and without the need for extraction. However, similarly with young humans, many horse parents want to disable the potential development of biting issues that may arise from leaving wolf teeth in place.
Furthermore, as horse owners want to maximize their horse’s comfort with a bit placed in their mouth, it may seem advisable to remove wolf teeth. This is because wolf teeth contain nerves and are situated in and around highly innervated gums and bone near the periodontal ligament. If the bit makes contact with the tooth, it might induce pain which may cause the horse to act up in response. In fact, any pressure that’s placed on a horse’s cheeks is capable of rubbing against these teeth and causing pain.
What Should be Done About Wolf Teeth
Because wolf teeth are both not necessary and may interfere with bit placement in performance horses, many horse trainers opt to have them removed as early as is feasible. However, according to Glennon Mays, DVM and Clinical Assistant Professor at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (CVM), one should not just jump to extraction as the only viable option once wolf teeth are noted.
“Even with this reputation as a negative, unneeded component of the mouth, owners do not always remove the teeth, especially in horses that do not have erupted wolf teeth or in horses that are not used for performance purposes,” says Mays. “Removing wolf teeth is a decision you should make with your veterinarian. The procedure is not particularly dangerous, but there are risks with any surgical procedure. There is the possibility of severing or damaging the palatine artery which can cause a great deal of blood loss. Or in horses with large, curved wolf teeth, the curvature of the tooth increases the possibility for complications.”
If you and your veterinarian decide to leave your horse’s wolf teeth in, you should remember that the recovery process from extraction will become substantially harder on your horse as they age. However, if you do decide to extract the teeth, you should feel comfort in knowing that the procedure is relatively quick and easy.
What is the Extraction Process Like?
The process of removing wolf teeth is relatively simple and usually requires sedation with a local anesthetic applied to the affected area. During extraction, the mouth will first be cleansed and then flushed to lower the chance of infection. Then, the gums and ligaments around the tooth will be loosened with a tool called an elevator which allows the tooth to be removed with forceps. Due to the variety of shapes and sizes of wolf teeth, the procedure time can vary from just a few minutes to an hour.
Because of how minimally invasive most wolf teeth extraction procedures are, aftercare tends to be just as minimal. However, some reports on wolf teeth extraction advocate for not feeding hay, straw, or grain concentrates for up to twelve hours after removal. Additionally, some equine veterinarians may recommend that owners irrigate the extraction site twice daily for a few days after the teeth are pulled to maintain a clean oral environment and minimize the chance of infection. Also, it is advisable that you do not ride or train your horse for at least 24 hours after extraction to minimize their discomfort.
To ensure an easy, complication-free recovery process, make sure that your horse is up to date on their vaccinations, most specifically tetanus. Horses are highly susceptible to the toxins from the tetanus bacteria, clostridium tetani, leading to many tetanus infections in horses becoming fatal.
The types of wounds in which the anaerobic tetanus bacteria thrive are small, hidden puncture wounds where there is little to no oxygen. This means that the many small cuts or gashes that may be present after a wolf tooth extraction offer the perfect environment for this nasty infection to sprout. Adequate protection against tetanus infections includes an initial vaccination, followed by a second booster four to six weeks later, and then recurring vaccinations every two to four years.
Thankfully, the process for protecting your horse against an opportunistic infection such as tetanus is as easy. In that same vein, so is protecting your horse against a variety of fungal and bacterial infections. Just reach for Banixx Horse & Pet care products!
Banixx works to provide instantaneous sting-free, odorless relief without relying on pesky steroids or antibiotics. If your horse is suffering from Scratches, Rain rot, Thrush, White line disease, or another infection, just identify the affected area, apply Banixx twice daily, and wait. In no time at all, your horse will be trotting along, ready to be taken to the veterinarian for a more comprehensive evaluation. With Banixx, relief really is that simple.