Do Fish Have Teeth? Dental Details Explained

Updated June 16, 2022
Piranha fish

Most people probably don't think fish have teeth and consider it a rarity confined to certain species. The image of piranhas attacking their hapless prey comes to mind. However, you might be surprised to learn that all species of fish have some type of teeth.

All Fish Have Teeth

All fresh- and saltwater fish have teeth, although the structure and location of their teeth will vary depending on a species' diet.

Carnivorous Fish Teeth

Close up of cardiform and pharyngeal teeth

Carnivorous fish depend on ingesting protein by eating other species of fish, insects, and other live animals to survive. Because of this, they have teeth that look like what we would expect of teeth.

  • This would include canine teeth for grabbing and holding prey and incisors for grinding down flesh.
  • Some carnivorous fish have large, flat molar teeth which are used for crushing up food covered with shells, such as snails and small crabs.

Herbivorous Fish Teeth

Fish that feed on plants and algae have teeth that are designed for cutting into vegetation and breaking it down. These fish rely on incisors which can either be "individual" like a human's or melded together as almost one unit, like a bird's beak.

Fish Teeth Anatomy

The reason people usually don't think of a fish having teeth is that it's not as easy to see them, depending on the species, based on where they are situated in the anatomy of a fish's mouth. A fish's teeth can be found in the "expected" places, such as inside the lips or along their jaws. Some fish species have their teeth on their tongues or in their throat, which are known as pharyngeal teeth.

Common Pet Fish and Teeth

Since all fish have teeth, this means your fish happily swimming in tanks in your house all have a set of choppers.

  • Some common fish, such as small catfish species, have cardiform teeth, which are a set of several rows of tiny needle-like teeth along with pharyngeal teeth.
  • The fact that your pet fish have teeth doesn't mean you should be concerned about getting bitten, as most often these teeth are quite tiny and unable to break your skin.

Large Carnivorous Fish Keeping

You may not have to worry about a bite from commonly kept pet fish that are small. With larger fish, such as piranhas, you will need to be more careful, as their teeth are capable of inflicting damage. As you can see in the video below, piranha teeth can draw blood and are not a breed of fish for beginner pet lovers.

Are Fish Teeth Like Human Teeth?

A fish's teeth are theorized to have developed over time from scales on the lips. These scales evolved into teeth based on the species' habitat and diet. A fish's teeth are like a human's in that:

  • Both fish and human teeth have an enamel covering over a pulp cavity with blood and nerves.
  • Some fish, such as the sheepshead, can have a set of incisors and molars that look eerily like a human's mouth of teeth.

Fish and human teeth are different in that:

  • Fish do not possess permanent teeth and will regularly lose teeth and replace them over the course of their lives.
  • Fish teeth can be found in other areas of the anatomy, unlike in humans, where teeth are only found along the jawline.

Dental Care for Your Fish

For most commonly kept fish species, there is nothing you can do to assist them with dental care, other than making sure you're feeding them a species-appropriate diet. Some fish with "beaks" do need occasional teeth trimming, such as pufferfish.

Do Fish Have Tongues?

Close up of mackerel teeth

Just as fish have teeth, they also have tongues, though they're not structurally like a human's tongue. The "basihyal" is a bone that is considered the equivalent of a tongue because it's on the bottom of the fish's mouth. However, unlike in human tongues, a fish's "tongue" does not include taste buds and doesn't perform the same functions. The basihyal's main purpose appears to be preventing food from going into the ventral aorta.

Your Pet Fish's Teeth

All fish have teeth of one type or another, so learning your goldfish has them shouldn't be a concern. If you decide to keep larger, carnivorous fish, consult with your aquarium store specialist for tips on how to handle them without getting nipped.

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Do Fish Have Teeth? Dental Details Explained