Bears are iconic animals that have captured people’s imagination for centuries. With their large, powerful bodies and ability to stand up on two legs, it’s only natural to wonder – how many teeth does a bear have? Read on as we take an in-depth look at ursine dental anatomy.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: most bear species have between 38 and 42 teeth.

Key Facts on Bear Teeth

Bears are omnivores with a variety of teeth types

As omnivores, bears have different types of teeth that allow them to eat both meat and plants. Their teeth include incisors, canines, premolars, and molars – giving them the ability to grasp, kill, tear, cut, grind, and chew all sorts of food.

Most bears have around 40 permanent teeth as adults

The majority of bear species develop around 42 permanent teeth by adulthood. For example, American black bears have 42, while polar bears have 40. Here’s a quick breakdown of their dental formula:

  • Incisors: 6 upper, 6 lower
  • Canines: 4 upper, 4 lower
  • Premolars: 10 upper, 10 lower
  • Molars: 4 upper, 4 lower

In total, adult bears usually have about 40-42 teeth that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

Cubs have a set of deciduous ‘milk teeth’ that fall out

Like humans, bear cubs are born without teeth. Their first set consists of deciduous “milk teeth” that start coming in around 4-6 weeks after birth. Cubs have 28 milk teeth in total – incisors, canines, and premolars both upper and lower.

By around 5-7 months old, these temporary teeth begin to fall out as the permanent adult teeth grow in.

Incisors and canines are used for tearing meat and killing prey

The incisors and canine teeth at the front of a bear’s mouth are essential tools for hunting and eating meat. The incisors help them grasp and hold onto prey, while the long and pointed canines allow them to kill prey by inflicting deep puncture wounds.

Bears have very strong bite force to help them kill large animals like deer or elk.

Premolars and molars are broad and flat for grinding plant material

Unlike the incisors and canines, premolars and molars at the back of a bear’s mouth are broad, flat teeth optimized for grinding up fibrous plant material. With these teeth bears can crush and grind tough vegetation like grasses, berries, nuts, and more.

The wide surfaces help them properly break down the cell walls and access nutrients in these foods.

Tooth Counts of Different Bear Species

Brown bears typically have 42 teeth

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is a large species of bear that has a wide distribution across much of northern Eurasia and North America. Adult brown bears have 42 teeth in total – 12 incisors, 4 canines, 16 premolars, and 10 molars.

Their large canines and powerful jaws enable them to crush bones and capture prey. Brown bears are omnivores and use their impressive teeth to eat everything from salmon and berries to rodents and deer.

In the course of their lives, brown bears’ teeth can take quite a beating from all that bone-crushing and other tough dietary items, but luckily the teeth continue to grow throughout the bear’s life and are replaced as needed.

Polar bears average 38 teeth

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is the largest living land carnivore, with adult males averaging 38 teeth. Like brown bears, polar bears have 12 incisors, 4 canines, 16 premolars, and 6 molars – their fewer molars reflects their highly carnivorous diet.

Their large canines can reach 4 inches (10 cm) in length and are perfect for seizing and killing seals. The polar bear’s powerful jaws and sharp teeth enable it to consume the whole carcasses of seals, including skin, blubber, flesh, and bones.

In fact, polar bear teeth are so strong they can crunch through seal skulls and other bones effortlessly. As apex predators of the Arctic, polar bears rely heavily on their impressive dentition to survive.

American black bears usually have 42 teeth

The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is a medium-sized bear native to North America. Adult black bears have the standard bear tooth count of 42 – 12 incisors, 4 canines, 16 premolars and 10 molars.

They are omnivorous opportunists and use their versatile teeth to eat a wide variety of foods including fruit, nuts, insects, salmon, small mammals and carrion. While not as specialized as the teeth of grizzly bears, black bears have strong premolars and molars that are effective for grinding fibrous vegetation and crushing bones to access nutritious marrow.

Overall, the American black bear’s dentition is very similar to the closely-related brown bear, providing an adaptable toolkit for their generalist, omnivorous lifestyle.

Giant pandas have elaborate molars for their bamboo diet

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is a bear species native to China that, unlike other bears, feeds almost exclusively on bamboo. To aid in processing this tough, fibrous plant, giant pandas have developed specialized, enlarged molars.

While giant pandas still have the typical bear tooth count of 42 teeth, their molars account for a whopping 60% of their teeth and provide an extensive grinding surface area. Their powerful jaw muscles and flat molars allow giant pandas to grind down and digest the cellulose in bamboo.

These unique adaptations make giant panda molars very different from the molars of carnivorous bears. In fact, giant panda teeth resemble vegetarian bears that went extinct millions of years ago, providing a fascinating example of convergent evolution.

Sun bears have 40-42 teeth with long canines

The sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is the smallest extant bear species, though it still sports the full set of 40-42 bear teeth. Sun bears have long, curved canines that can reach 2 inches (5 cm) in length – disproportionately long given the bear’s small size.

These long canines and sharp incisors are effective weapons for capturing prey and self-defense. At the same time, sun bears have wide molars with well-developed shearing crests that allow them to grind down fruits and vegetables as they feed on a highly omnivorous diet in tropical Asian forests.

The sun bear’s dental toolkit allows it to take advantage of a wide array of food sources throughout its range.

The Purpose and Function of Bear Teeth

Incisors are small nipping teeth at front of the jaw

A bear’s incisors play a vital role in grasping and holding prey or opening shells of nuts and seeds. Bears have six small and narrow top incisors at the front of the jaw which are well-suited for biting and nibbling with accuracy (Bear Trust International).

Similarly, bears have six lower incisors with chisel-like edges used for scraping or stripping skin, fat, or rind from their food before swallowing. When biting with incisors, bears exert an average of up to 1200 pounds per square inch (PSI) of force, enabling them to bite off vegetation or meat (National Park Service).

Canines are large piercing teeth designed for killing prey

A bear has four impressive 2-3 inch long canine teeth, two on top and two on bottom (American Bear Association). The sharp, curved shape of the canines allows them to function like daggers or spears to stab and puncture prey.

Bears use their long canines to inflict lethal wounds on large animals when attacking vulnerable areas like the neck or underside. While brown bears have been found to bite force over 1200 PSI with their canines, polar bears may bite up to 1500 PSI (Science ABC).

Premolars have mixed traits for gripping and grinding

Bears have twelve premolars with traits suited for both capturing prey and processing vegetation. The first four uppers and lowers have pointed cusps efficient for spearing flesh, while the last eight premolars are broad and flat for crushing (Bearwise).

When closing the jaw, the premolar cusps align precisely to grip flesh and bone securely. A comparative study of bite forces across seventeen bear species found premolars transmit an average force of 716 PSI for snaring and mashing food (Oxford Academic).

Molars have broad crowns ideal for crushing vegetation

Bears have flat, powerful molars designed to grind tough plant material. There are eight molars on top and bottom, giving bears a total of 42 teeth (U.S Fish & Wildlife Service). The wide surface area of molar crowns generates tremendous pressure, with grizzly bears biting over 1200 PSI on rear teeth (ScienceAlert).

Studies of black bear diet through dental analysis reveal molars crack open hard oak nuts and crush fruit pits (Bearwise). Worn down molars also indicate bears spend roughly 20% of active hours grinding tough vegetation.

Dental Health and Hygiene in Bears

Bears can get dental problems like abscesses and worn teeth

Like humans, bears can suffer from dental diseases and conditions that negatively impact their health. Dental problems seen in bears include tooth decay, gum disease, tooth fractures, and abscesses (infection of the tooth root).

These issues are often caused by trauma, advanced age, genetics, or diet – especially diets high in sugars.

For example, research shows that bears that eat human garbage and foods with high sugar content tend to have more cavities and dental decay. The sugars feed the plaque bacteria on their teeth, causing acid production that attacks the enamel.

Without proper dental hygiene, these plaque buildups can advance to painful abscesses inside the tooth and decay can reach the inner pulp cavity.

Captive bears occasionally receive veterinary dental care

Bears in captivity may periodically have their teeth cleaned and examined by veterinarians to maintain good dental health. Veterinary dentistry techniques allow for thorough dental cleaning, treatment of diseased teeth, and extraction of severely damaged teeth when necessary.

For example, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo periodically performs dental examinations on their pandas while they are under anesthesia for other procedures. Dentists scale and polish panda teeth to remove tartar buildup. Any damaged or infected teeth can be treated or extracted.

This type of preventative dental maintenance helps reduce risk of oral disease.

Diet impacts oral health – high sugar foods can cause decay

A species-appropriate natural diet promotes good dental health for bears. Wild bears eat diets primarily of meat, fish, berries, and other natural foods that help clean teeth and exercise jaw muscles.

Unfortunately, bears living near humans often access sugary foods like candy, soda, and garbage that lead to increased tooth decay. One study of 115 wild black bears found that nearly half had cavities – quite high compared to the 5-10% tooth decay rate seen in prehistoric bears.

Easy access to processed sugars and carbohydrates is likely a major contributing factor to the rise in dental problems for modern bears.

Worn and damaged teeth may lead to starvation in the wild

For wild bears, advanced dental disease can become life-threatening and lead to starvation. Damaged and infected teeth are extremely painful and make it difficult to chew foods. Malnutrition and organ damage can result, leading to an early death.

Bears suffering from painful dental problems may act more aggressively towards humans as they desperately seek food. Wildlife managers and bear researchers recommend properly securing food waste and prohibiting wildlife feeding to encourage natural foraging behavior and improve bear welfare.

Teething and Dental Development in Bear Cubs

Cubs begin developing teeth a few months before birth

Bear cubs start developing their baby teeth (known as milk teeth or deciduous teeth) while still in the womb, beginning 2-3 months before birth. The milk teeth begin to calcify as early as 60 days gestation.

By the time cubs are born, their milk teeth are almost fully formed and ready to erupt through the gums.

Baby teeth erupt around 3-4 months and are shed by 1 year

Around 12-16 weeks after birth, right around 3-4 months old, the milk teeth start coming in. Cubs will get a full set of baby teeth, usually around 24-28 teeth, though the number can vary by species. The teeth erupt in an orderly sequence over a couple months.

By about 6 months old, the milk teeth are all in.

These deciduous teeth are meant to be temporary. Cubs use them for grasping, chewing, and tearing food as they transition from nursing to eating solid foods. Around 12-18 months old, the milk teeth fall out as the permanent adult teeth develop and push them out.

By the time cubs are 1 year old, they typically have lost all their baby teeth.

Milk teeth help cubs learn to eat solid foods before adulthood

The milk teeth serve an important developmental purpose for young cubs. They enable cubs to sample solid foods like meat and plants while their adult teeth are still growing in. The milk teeth allow cubs to learn how to bite, chew, and tear as they practice eating solid foods.

This helps them develop skills for foraging and hunting they will rely on as adults.

Milk teeth are smaller and weaker than permanent teeth. Their size and strength are tailored to a cub’s smaller jaws and weaker bite force. This allows them to eat softened foods as they transition to solids.

The milk teeth are sharp for grasping prey and slicing meat, with pointed cusps for piercing and gripping.

Permanent teeth grow in gradually; adult teeth emerge around 2-3 years

As milk teeth fall out, the permanent adult teeth begin to erupt. Cubs will develop between 34-42 permanent teeth by adulthood. The permanent teeth grow in over a longer period, from about 6 months old until 2-3 years old.

The large canine teeth are usually the first permanent teeth to come in, starting around 6-9 months old. These are used for hunting, defense, and establishing dominance. Next the incisors and cheek teeth emerge.

By age 2-3 years when fully mature, bears have a complete set of large, strong permanent teeth specialized for their dietary needs.


In summary, most bears have around 40 permanent teeth as adults, with a mix of incisors, canines, premolars and molars adapted for their omnivorous diets. While the exact number varies slightly between species, all bears rely heavily on their teeth for survival in the wild.

Proper dental care and development is therefore crucial, especially for vulnerable cubs first learning to eat solid foods. Hopefully this breakdown gave you a clear answer to your question on how many teeth bears have!

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