What are equine wolf teeth and what should we do with them?
“Wolf teeth” are the vestigial/rudimentary 1st premolar teeth in the horse, that have been bypassed in evolution meaning they have no known function, unlike the 2nd, 3rd and 4th premolars which are full size cheek teeth and form part of the “grinding unit ” in each dental arcade .
Wolf teeth are not always present, if present they have normally erupted by 9-12 months of age and are most often found in both upper jaws just in front of the first upper cheek teeth so in conjunction with the soft tissues of the mouth can be affected by contact from a bit. In rare cases wolf teeth can also be found in just in front of the lower cheek teeth.
The size and position of the wolf teeth and the function and bitting of the horse will determine whether or not wolf teeth need to be extracted or not. Clearly a 20 y/o companion pony and a 6 y/o dressage horse will present as totally different scenarios in regard to the question of wolf tooth extraction.
Some wolf teeth are shed when the first upper temporary premolar caps are shed at approximately 2.5 years of age, while others can remain in place for the lifetime of the horse. The erupted part of the wolf tooth can be variable in size as can the length and degree of attachment to the underlying bone of the root of the tooth. The wolf tooth is similar in structure to a human tooth, ie. a simple enamel layer overlying a single vital pulp, therefore like our teeth it should not be rasped or reduced as that would expose the pulp and cause severe pain to the horse. Therefore the wolf teeth should either be left in situ as they are, or carefully extracted. In my opinion, horses should be sedated and a local anaesthetic nerve block be administered by a vet to allow pain free, safe and complete extraction of wolf teeth.
Unfortunately there is not a “zip-like” structure holding wolf teeth into the surrounding bone, so wolf teeth can “break” during careful extraction in any operator’s hands, the important thing is that remnants of tooth and bone are removed from the socket at the time of extraction, to prevent future complications.
Some wolf teeth are displaced “rostrally” this means towards the canines, usually about 1-2 cm in front of the upper cheek teeth, and in many cases these teeth sit flat against the bone of the upper mandible and remain unerupted or “blind”. These wolf teeth often cause problems when the horse is bitted, and extraction is slightly more complicated.
I believe it is vitally important to perform a full dental examination on all horses before they are bitted for the first time (this may be as a yearling in race Thoroughbreds, but may be as a 3 y/o in other competition horses). In young horses like this, there will always be very sharp enamel points , loose premolar caps and possibly wolf teeth, and these issues should be addressed as appropriate at this time, and then the horse given time for the mouth to settle down again before bitting is attempted. Wolf teeth certainly do not always need to be removed but prior to first bitting is an appropriate time to do so if needed.
Contributor: Pete Ravenhill, B&W Equine Vets.
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