Ask A Teamster: Wolf Teeth
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana
Doc Hammill’s Preface
I would like to emphasize that this article on wolf teeth is just as important and appropriate as it was when I first wrote it in 1998.
I have a possible question for “Ask a Teamster”. A professional equine dentist stated that all equines should have their wolf teeth removed. Is he just boosting his business?
This is a great question because wolf teeth in equines are a source of significant confusion and problems. First, let me explain wolf teeth.
They are small (fingernail size or even much smaller), nonfunctional teeth in the upper jaw of many equines. They are inconsistently present, in that they may or may not be found in a specific animal, and their number may vary (0 to 4 in my experience). Further, they may not be present at 2 or 3 years of age when we start bridling a horse, yet may erupt through the gums later in life. Wolf teeth can also remain imbedded in the gums and be invisible, but still cause the problems they are notorious for. When present, wolf teeth are located to the rear of the interdental space (the jawline between the incisor teeth or nippers, at the front of the mouth, and the large premolars and molars, or grinders, farther back along the cheeks). The interdental space is where the bit rests in the mouth. (Diagram).
The problem resulting from wolf teeth are due to the bit hammering on them or bouncing over them and banging into the much larger premolar teeth behind. This causes varying degrees of aggravation and pain to the animal. The problems that result range from minor irritation (often unapparent due to the wonderful and tolerant nature of many horses and mules) to dangerous reactions and behavior.
Symptoms I have seen exhibited by animals being tortured in this way include: bobbing or throwing the head, shaking the head, pulling on the bit, backing off the bit, working off only one side of the bit, working with the head unnaturally (to one side or up or down), stretching the mouth open overreacting to the bit and signals from the driver through the reins or lines, rearing up from anxiousness to panic and flight when being ridden or driven with a bit. There are probably other symptoms I have overlooked. One of the first things I check on a horse or mule with any behavior or training problem that occurs when bitted, is wolf teeth. Countless times I have seen such problems dramatically and immediately disappear upon wolf teeth being removed and the mouth allowed to heal for a week. Often equines with wolf teeth are ridden or driven for years with no apparent problems then suddenly develop wolf teeth related symptoms. Sometimes a new or different bit will cause the irritation but often no logical explanation can be found. A high percentage of such cases are solved by removing the wolf teeth. Wolf teeth that are imbedded in the gums and have not erupted (and may never) are invisible. They can cause problems as bad or worse than erupted, visible teeth. Sometimes these buried teeth can be felt through the gum tissue but often they cannot be detected without a radiograph (x-ray).
These troublesome little teeth are found in both sexes of equines and may be found in varying numbers. Sometimes one will be found in one upper jaw and none on the other side (perhaps not erupted). Often one will be found on each side in the upper jaw, but on occasion, I have found two close together on the same side of the jaw. Don’t confuse wolf teeth with the larger teeth called tusks or canines found farther forward in the interdental space of most equines.
Due to problems I’ve seen over the years caused by wolf teeth my recommendation is for them to be removed from horses and mules before a bit is ever placed in their mouths. If I acquire a horse or take one in to train or work I remove any wolf teeth found, as I suspect they aggravate horses and mules even though external signs may not be recognized.
Extracting wolf teeth is a surgical procedure and should be performed only by a licensed veterinarian. States vary in licensing of equine dentists so it may or may not be legal for equine dentists to extract wolf teeth in your area. The major complication in removing wolf teeth is breaking the root and not retrieving the fragment from the jaw. This leaves a sharp, jagged root tip that causes worse pain than the original tooth when pressure from the bit hits the gum tissue over it. These fragments must be removed.
Doug “Doc” Hammill DVM