Do equine wolf teeth always need to be extracted?

An expert explains the many factors to consider when determining the fate of a horse's wolf teeth.

Q: I’ve owned my 4-year-old Quarter Horse gelding for just over a year and recently moved to a new boarding barn. My horse has received regular dental care and has never had any trouble with his teeth. However, the manager at my new barn insists that my horse needs to have his wolf teeth removed. She says that even if they aren’t causing trouble now, they will in the future. Still, I feel like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Is it still routine to remove wolf teeth, even if they don’t seem to be bothering the horse at all?

A: While the practice of extracting equine wolf teeth should not be considered “routine,” in the sense that it is done automatically or without any thought to individual circumstances, it is a very common procedure.  

A horse being examined by a dentist
The extraction of wolf teeth is typically straightforward, most often being done under mild sedation and sometimes with a local anesthetic block.

Before discussing why these teeth are often extracted, it’s important to understand what wolf teeth are and why they might cause interference with the bit. Wolf teeth are technically the first premolar, a tooth that is commonly a functional chewing tooth in other species. In the horse, however, this particular tooth has become underdeveloped, or vestigial, during the evolutionary development of the modern equine. As such, it serves no real function in today’s horse. 

Wolf teeth are most often located just in front of the horse’s chewing teeth. They are considered an optional tooth, with a horse having anywhere from zero to four. It’s most common to encounter only one or two wolf teeth, usually on the maxillary (upper) arcades. Because of the location and underdeveloped nature of wolf teeth, the bit can sometimes put pressure on and loosen them. It is thought that this may be the reason some horses seem to have bitting trouble when
wolf teeth are present. 

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One other point worth mentioning: Canines, those fang-like teeth sometimes found in the bars of the horse’s mouth, are commonly mistaken for wolf teeth. Canines are not usually extracted.

The extraction of wolf teeth is typically straightforward, most often being done under mild sedation and sometimes with a local anesthetic block. In most cases, there is minimal recovery time and few complications. Not all wolf teeth cause bitting issues, however, and the size, stability and location of the actual teeth are factors that may influence that. 

In conclusion, then, even though wolf teeth extraction is common and rarely causes complications, the procedure—like all others—has benefits and drawbacks. Any decision to extract wolf teeth should be made by the owner with consideration to the horse’s individual situation and whether there is reasonable justification for their removal.

Bryan Taylor, DVM
Taylor Mobile Veterinary Dentistry
Mocksville, North Carolina

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