Canine Teeth: Anatomy, Purpose, and Diseases of Cuspids

woman smiling showing pronounced canine teeth

Let’s be honest, we rarely think about canine teeth. To put it humbly, we take them for granted. They sit around in the mouth, doing their job silently and never complaining about how we treat them.

You probably pay more attention to the fangs of your dog companion. But did you know that canines play a critical role in some basic functions we humans have? Just like the other permanent teeth, they are crucial to our existence and we should go to great lengths to keep them strong and healthy.

If you need more reasons to look after your pearly whites, here is additional information about tooth anatomy and functions that will hopefully convince you it’s time you scheduled your dental visit and have every side of your mouth examined, canine tooth areas included.

Types of Human Teeth: Incisors, Canines, Molars, Premolars, Third Molars

Let’s go over the five different types of teeth. Starting with the baby teeth (milk teeth), children have a total of 20 teeth that later fall out and get replaced by their adult teeth (permanent teeth), the number of which grows significantly.

The first ones to break through the gum tissue are two bottom incisors followed by more front teeth. They are usually the first to fall out (at around 6 to 7 years). Primary canine (baby canine) teeth erupt at the age of 16 to 23 months 1. Next, come upper and lower molars which gradually start to come out on the first year’s mark and continue to develop until 3 years of age. They are the last to fall out.

Incisors and Canines

Moving on to grown-ups. Adult teeth normally amount to 32 2(16 lower and 16 upper teeth). At the very front of the mouth lie eight incisor teeth (central incisor teeth and lateral incisor teeth), counting in both the upper jaw and the lower jaw.

Next to the incisors are the canines or cuspids in medical jargon. You may refer to them as pointed teeth as well. Crown stretched out below the other teeth, they are sharper and more pointed. The name of those type of teeth derives from the fangs of dogs. Our furry friends have them way longer, though. Humans have 2 types of canine teeth - maxillary canine and mandibular canine. Maxillary canine teeth are called eye teeth.

Because of its long and thick conical root, a canine has a tendency towards a delayed tooth eruption and a prolonged fall-out. There are two human canines on either side of the lower and upper jaw.

Premolars / Bicuspids and Molars

Then come the premolars, also known as bicuspids. In adults, they total the number 8, with four on each side. At the back of the mouth and further away from the incisors are positioned the molars. These are the teeth involved in grinding the food.

Wisdom teeth aka Third molars

And finally, the majority of folks have wisdom teeth, dubbed third molars, which come in at a later stage in life. In some people, wisdom teeth begin to form around the age of 18 but many individuals in their late 20s are still struggling with them, often becoming a health risk and need extraction.

When you open your mouth, what you see is the crown parts of your teeth, which are prone to cavities and other dental problems. Yes, molars, premolars, canines, central and lateral incisor teeth - all adult teeth can suffer from different diseases. What you cannot see is all the roots because they are hidden away below the gums and best examined with dental X-rays. To keep the inside structures in the best condition, you have to take religious care of the outer layer.

What is the Purpose and Function of a Canine Tooth?

upper and lower human canine teeth

Now that we delved into teeth anatomy, it’s time to focus on canines. In the animal kingdom, canine teeth are oftentimes the difference between survival and demise. They protrude from the surface and are the first to show when the mouth is open.

Without digging into the anatomy of animal teeth, we shall say that a lot of mammals use them to chop meat so they can feed. Not only that, longer fangs look pretty scary and threatening to possible enemies - and that’s a huge advantage to have in the wild. When it comes to dogs, it's fangs that make them so good at tug-of-war.

But why do humans have pointed teeth? In addition to talking and eating, these sharp structures on the upper jaw (eye teeth) and lower jaw help to maintain the shape of the mouth. This seems like an important role.

But there is more than meets the eye.

Human Canine Teeth Vs Animal Canines: Anatomy and Functions

pitbulls biting on wooden stick showing canine teeth

Let’s go back to animals for a minute. As you know, most mammals, even some herbivores, have canine teeth on the upper and lower jaw. They are longer in males than in females 3. For purposes of comparison, we are going to use gorillas.

In case you didn’t know, gorillas are polygamous and males have to compete for the rights to mate with all females in their troop. Those that have the most threatening fangs are (more often than not) perceived as the dominant types and given exclusive breeding rights.

Canines in humans

Looking at adult canine teeth, we see the same pattern: men’s are longer than women’s but this distinction is less and less noticeable today. Evolution has a say in this. Whereas the animal world hasn’t lost an inch of that length, human canine teeth have actually begun to get shorter over time, projecting less from the surface of other teeth.

The reason for this is unclear but scientists suggest that at some point men stopped using teeth as a form of defence.

It probably started out with childcare. Since babies were defenceless for quite a long period, males had to take part in the upbringing to keep them safe. Put another way, after a man has found a partner, he no longer needs to fight for the exclusive rights to mate; therefore, he doesn’t need long lower and upper canines.

The canine tooth is the norm rather than the exception. When you trace back the evolution of the human jaw, you will see it has decreased in size in the last few thousand years. Thus, incisor teeth, premolars, molars, and wisdom teeth suffered changes as well. As far as the latter are concerned, they may disappear altogether because there is no room in the mouth to accommodate them.

What Diseases are Human Canines Prone to?

You wouldn’t be surprised to find out your permanent canine teeth are not safe from damage, would you? Truth is, they can fall victim to various problems like your incisors, molars, and premolar teeth. And while tooth decay and cavities are less of an issue here, they are still possible. Plus, you have to be extra mindful of other possible complications.

Canine tooth impaction

Statistical analysis shows that canines in people can get impacted more readily than other permanent teeth. Impaction is a condition in which a tooth does not come out properly and is instead stuck against surrounding soft tissue or another adjacent teeth. More often than not, it befalls wisdom teeth but is not unique to them.


Permanent canine teeth also get crooked and may need to be straightened out using traditional braces or invisible aligners. Modern dentistry has plenty of orthodontic treatment options to accommodate humans’ needs. Speak to your doctor for all the details. Children are especially at risk. A baby tooth can get easily crooked. This applies to incisors, first, and second molars too.

Teeth tartar

While plaque is soft and easy to remove manually using a toothbrush, tartar is a different thing. It is basically plaque mixed in with minerals from the teeth. When it hardens, it cannot be brushed away. You need professional assistance. If tartar is not removed from the teeth in due time, it grows to great amounts and invites more bacteria on board. This can turn into a disease of the gums over time.

Gum disease

Third, maxillary and mandibular canines are more vulnerable to gum disease. If a person has periodontitis, gum recession is more obvious around the upper canines. Treatment options include antibiotics, scaling and polishing, using mouthwash, etc. It is important to note that the condition can be managed but it cannot be cured. Your best bet is to never develop it in the first place. With some prevention steps in place, you will be relatively safe.

Chips and cracks on teeth enamel

There are different reasons that chips and cracks on the enamel occur but the most common is teeth grinding (bruxism), especially for people suffering from sleep apnea. This is excessive clenching of the teeth, conscious or unconscious. It can manifest itself at night (sleep bruxism) or during the day (awake bruxism) and needs special treatment before it gets serious enough to damage the enamel of your pearly whites. Dentists can provide muscle relaxants, Botox injections, and additional medication to help you relax and break your bad habit. You will also be recommended using a mouth guard if you happen to clench your teeth in your sleep.

Tooth sensitivity

With sensitivity in full swing, your teeth react to hot and cold. As a result, you experience slight or severe pain every time you bite into food or have a sip from drinks that are outside the normal temperature. This usually means that your dentin - the tissue below the enamel - is exposed. Your maxillary and mandibular canines are not safe from sensitivity either. Your incisors, molars, and premolars are equally at risk.

Teeth discolouration

treating teeth discolouration at dental clinic

Coloured foods and drinks might be palatable but they tend to leave stains on our teeth. Canines are no exception. Given that they are anterior teeth and quite visible when you smile, this means any changes in the colour will show through right away. Although this is not a health concern and it does not go down the tooth root, it can ruin a good smile. The good news is that a teeth whitening treatment can restore them to their former glory in no time.

Do Canine Teeth Need any Special Treatment?

You should give your canine teeth the same amount of care as you do the rest of the teeth. Brush and floss each day to remove food particles and plaque from the surface. It is also a smart idea to limit fast food and cut out sugars from your diet to avoid too much plaque from lingering on your teeth.

If you have children, it is vital to show them how to care properly for their pearly whites but also lead by example. The best way to keep teeth strong and healthy is by taking good care of all of them and maintaining good oral hygiene.

Regular dental check-ups

Healthy teeth require a lifetime of care. You shouldn't miss your dental cleaning sessions and other doctor appointments. On the surface, it may look like your teeth are in great condition but in reality, there may be a problem you are not fully aware of. Dental professionals will detect stuff that is not immediately obvious to the non-professional eye and save you a few headaches.

The sooner you fix an issue, the lesser the chance of it growing into periodontal disease or other serious complications and reaching the roots. It also bodes well with your budget in the long term.

At the end of the day, all teeth matter, regardless of what types of teeth we are talking about baby teeth, canine teeth, wisdom teeth, premolar teeth, molars, and incisor teeth. You need each and every white surface in your mouth to be able to chew and eat food, as well as speak.