Wolf Teeth in horses

Many myths and mysteries surround wolf teeth. Here’s how to separate fact from fiction.

The most common question I am asked is where wolf teeth got their name. The reason isn’t clear to me, but one explanation is that the word “wolf” has a negative connotation to some people, so was used to identify these tiny premolars as “bad”.

Canine Teeth

Wolf teeth are often confused with canines, but it’s important to know that while male equines generally get canines, mares rarely do, or else develop only very small ones.

Canines are also known as “bridle teeth”. They erupt at four to five years of age and are situated further forward on the bars of the mouth, between the premolars and incisors. Unless there is pathology, such as a fracture and infection below the gum surface, canine teeth should not be extracted. They have very long roots, and due to their more rostral location on the bars, they don’t interfere with the function and comfort of a bit if it is correctly positioned in the horse’s mouth. Canines can create a problem if they are left very sharp, or if the bit is pulled out of the horse’s mouth without taking care that it does not catch on these long, standalone teeth.

The Prevalence of Wolf Teeth

In my practice, about 50% of the young horses I see, as well as those that have never had dental work, have one or more wolf teeth. The teeth can be on one or both sides of the mouth and are almost always in the upper jaw. I have seen only a couple of horses with a lower (mandibular) wolf tooth, but I have seen them in several donkeys.

As most people now know, wolf teeth occur in females as often as males. In my opinion, wolf teeth should always be extracted if a horse is going to be ridden or driven at any time in his life. I have had people tell me their horses have never had bits in their mouths, so there is no need to remove their wolf teeth. However, having seen older horses that had their comfort compromised by a wolf tooth that was left in, I prefer to always advocate for the horse. A horse’s life path may not always follow the route we think it will. The owner could move or even pass away, and horses change homes even when we think they never will.

So unless a horse is un-rideable or un-driveable for some permanent physical reason, I feel the wolf teeth should be removed. It is possible for them to fall out on their own, either because of contact with the bit or a natural shedding (due to the teeth being small or shallow), but this does not seem to be a common occurrence in my experience.

Reasons for Removal

Why remove wolf teeth if they are a normal part of a horse’s dental anatomy? Well, once again, “natural” is not always best if we aren’t going to leave the horse in his natural state, which certainly does not include having a bit in his mouth and a rider on his back. Because of their location, wolf teeth can create discomfort in the horse and be a disrupting factor in rider/mount communication. It is also beneficial to be able to sculpt a gentle “bit seat” or do a soft rounding of the premolars so that soft tissue is not drawn over the sharp rostral edges of these teeth when the bit is moved during work. I have worked on hundreds of horses whose movement, performance and focus drastically improved after having their wolf teeth removed.

Removal Process

Wolf teeth are what I refer to as “evolutionarily on their way out”. They are a vestigial structure, similar to a chestnut on the inside of the front leg. The chestnut is the remnant of a toe that was present in early equines millions of years ago, and the wolf tooth is a remnant of a functional tooth found in these same ancestors. These ancient horses were very small and ate a different diet, and the wolf tooth was part of their functional dental arcade. Wolf teeth generally have a short root, unlike the other premolars and molars which have a deep reserve crown below the gumline that erupts as the horse ages and wears his teeth.

Wolf teeth and the surrounding soft tissues are innervated, and horses should be appropriately sedated by a veterinarian for tooth removal, and pain relief provided. I always use a sedative that also provides pain relief, and will often give the horse an injection of an NSAID such as phenylbutazone or banamine to help with post-procedure pain. Arnica or Traumeel can be helpful, topically or internally. Wolf teeth with long roots or significant soft tissue attachments may also benefit from a local anesthetic.

Extractions can take one minute or 20, depending on the size and attachment of the tooth. Sometimes, wolf teeth are very close to the second premolars and are difficult to elevate. I find the ideal time to extract wolf teeth is around one year of age. The teeth erupt at six to 12 months in most horses, if they are going to show up, and are much easier to get out in one piece when newly erupted.

We ask a lot of our horses, and we owe it to them to make sure all their dental needs are met to ensure their comfort and health, and a fun, willing partnership with their human caretakers.

Blind Wolf Teeth

When a wolf tooth is present but does not erupt through the gum, it is called a “blind” wolf tooth. I have found many of these in horses. It creates a problem with the bit, and can even be an issue when a bit isn’t present.

People are often surprised at how sharp blind wolf teeth are when I show them how the points have been pressing against the horse’s gums. I imagine it’s like having a sharp rock in your shoe – painful and distracting.

It is very important to always look and palpate for these teeth when a dental exam is done on any horse. Also, if a tooth was removed and broke during the procedure, the remaining piece can migrate down to the gumline over time. It is always ideal to remove the entire tooth but the root can sometimes break off in an older horse. Most of the time, this poses no problem, but given the possibility of a migrating fragment, I check this area during every equine dental exam.

If a tooth-like fragment appears after a complete extraction was done at a young age, it is also possible that a bit of the deciduous second premolar broke off and lodged in the gumline. Baby teeth fragments can also be a problem, so they should be extracted as well.

Dr. Erin Zamzow graduated from Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1990. Her passion is understanding the solid foundations for health that are often overlooked in Western medicine, and addressing the root causes of disease and imbalance in the body. In 2006 Dr. Zamzow was approached to be a consultant and co-formulator for a product line designed to support healthy, normal detoxification for animals. Vivo Animals was born and has been helping empower the immune systems of animals ever since! Dr. Zamzow continues her veterinary practice, and lives in Ellensburg, Washington. Ellensburgholisticanimalwellness.com


Dr. Zamzow is a consultant for Vivo Animals, which provides cutting edge natural health solutions for the animal companions in our lives. vivoanimals.com, facebook.com/VivoAnimals, 509-933-1190.