Lion's Tooth: Everything You Need to Know

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The lion (Panthera leo) is well known throughout the world. Their thunderous roars conjure up images of circus performers and the pride of feline hunters who roam the plains of Africa. Once endemic to many parts of Europe, India, the Caucasus, and Africa; lions are now restricted to scattered protected areas in parts of Africa and India. They are listed as endangered and regionally extinct in many places due to habitat loss and poaching.

Here, we'll learn what's unique about lion teeth, how many sets they have in a lifetime, and what they're used for. Then, we'll take a deeper look at the special uses of the four types of teeth and see just how hard a lion's bite really is. Finally, we'll explore why poachers might want to hunt lion teeth, and what you can do to help protect these awesome felines.

deciduous teeth

Lion cubs start their lives drinking only mother's milk. When they are about three months old, they start eating small pieces of meat. By this time, they've grown all their primary teeth and can effectively chew on their young teeth. At about three months old, they begin to erupt their permanent teeth. By the time they are 15 months old, they have no baby teeth, just the adult dentition they will carry with them for life.

Lions can live up to 15 years in the wild. If they live to this advanced age, their teeth will often wear down to the point where they must rely on other pride members for food. However, lions live in groups. As long as the lions have enough food, old lions can still live by biting on meat.

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adult teeth

lion tooth skull
Lions have 30 teeth; 12 incisors, 4 canines, and 14 fleshy teeth.

©Audrey Snider-Bell/

Lions are obligate, generalist carnivores that occupy the apex of their environment and key predator niches. This means they hunt and eat a lot of meat. Lions are the most diurnal (day active) of the big cats and will eat carrion when they come across it. Because they need teeth to hunt and eat, they have several different types of teeth to do the job.

Lions have a total of 30 teeth; 12 incisors, 4 canines, 10 premolars and 4 molars.

front teeth

Lions have 12 incisors; six on top and six on the bottom. In the upper jaw, the angular incisors closest to the canines are larger than the central and lateral incisors, with spaces between them and the canines. Lions use these teeth to grab and pull food and scrape meat from bones. They also use them to groom themselves and other members of their pride.

canine teeth

Lions have four huge canine teeth. They use these teeth to grab and hold fleeing prey. The canines can grow up to 7 cm long, are conical, and curve slightly back toward the skull. They are not as sharp as the canines of a domestic cat; instead, they are blunted and used to pinch the nose or windpipe of prey. Lions kill by strangulation or suffocation, and their canines play an important role in this process.


The premolars and molars of lions perform the same function; cutting meat. They are called carnassials; they have tall, pointed crowns with the top and bottom snapping together like a pair of scissors. These shearing teeth, combined with the lion's ability to open its hinged jaw nearly a foot wide, liken its mouth to a pair of giant, double-sharp scissors.

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What do lions do with their teeth?

Lion Bite Force - The lion faces and shows its teeth
Lions have 30 teeth; 12 incisors, 4 canines and 14 flesh bones

© Eric Isselee/

Lions, like many felines, eat nothing but meat. They do not eat hard parts of their prey (bones, cartilage), nor any fruits or vegetables. Because of this, their teeth were reduced to two specific functions. First, to catch prey, and second, to chop up food.

catch the prey

Lions attack with incisors and canines. Ideally, they'll bite the animal's throat or nose (zebras and wildebeest are favorite targets). Once they have dragged their prey to the ground, the lions use their powerful canines to close the windpipe, smothering the animal to death. It is not uncommon for canine teeth to break due to prey struggling, sometimes kicking or even rolling over the lion.

cut meat

A second use of the lion's teeth was to cut meat. Lions don't really chew; they don't crumble or crush their food before swallowing. They don't; since they only eat meat, lions just need to cut the meat into smaller parts to swallow. Their teeth are great for cutting meat, they are actually unable to crush harder parts like bone or cartilage. Lions are limited to eating soft parts of animals, such as meat and organs.

How hard is a lion's bite?

What Lions Eat - Dinnertime
Lions are obligate carnivores; they eat meat and nothing else

© Richard Damian Knight/

Lion jaws are unique among carnivores. They are short, have few teeth, and can hinge wide. Lions also have very strong jaw muscles, and oversized canine teeth. All of this combined means that the Lion has a powerful bite—up to 1,000 PSI. They don't use all that force to crush bones, though; they use it exclusively to grab and strangle prey.

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poaching and teeth

Lions that once roamed many parts of the world are now threatened in their native habitats. Most populations are scattered across national parks and game reserves, but that doesn't stop people from poaching them. Lions were often killed as revenge for dead livestock, or as trophies for wealthy hunters. Additionally, they are illegally hunted for their skin, claws and teeth. Lions are often poached just for these parts, with poachers harvesting their teeth and claws for the illegal trade.

This is important to keep in mind; if you see lion teeth for sale, whether ground into medicine, strung into jewelry or art, they most likely came from boiled lions. Avoid buying any parts from lions, even if they claim to have been obtained legally.


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about the author

Brandi Allred

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She has degrees in English and Anthropology and writes horror, science fiction and fantasy stories in her spare time.

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