Learning for Health (Equine Dentistry Education)

Lt. Col. L.A. Merillat, a renowned veterinary surgeon, described the differences in human and animal dentistry in a textbook over 100 years ago: "Human dentistry owes its existence to a single disease process, caries (cavities), while animal dentistry depends upon a single physical defect, enamel points (dental elongations)."

While human dentistry has made great strides to prevent dental caries with educational efforts on dental and oral hygiene and the application of fluoride in toothpaste and in drinking water, animal dentistry has only recently made similar advances.

Medical knowledge has progressed to where most people with access to competent dental care can keep their original teeth until a ripe old age. Small animal dentistry now incorporates many of the same principles we see on the human side. The field of equine veterinary dentistry is slowly catching up to the level of care enjoyed by humans and companion animals.

Equine hypsodont teeth are very different from the teeth of humans or most other domestic animals. These hypsodont teeth continue to erupt and wear throughout the horse's life.

Merillat's description of equine dental elongations have been dealt with for centuries as primary abnormalities by individuals who float or rasp teeth. We now better understand the reason for these elongations--lack of even occlusal wear of the continually erupting hypsodont horse tooth. The tooth involved in the elongation is usually a normal, healthy tooth that has not worn down because of a poorly formed or improperly positioned tooth in the opposite (occluding) dental arcade. Only about one-quarter to one-half of an inch of the tooth is present and visible in the horse's mouth, with the remainder of the tooth (up to 4½ inches in a young horse) located in the jaw bone. The hidden portion of the tooth is below the gum line and is continually changing throughout the horse's life.

Many advances have been made in equine dental care. Today's education and scientific understanding of dental anatomy, pathology, and treatment make the equine veterinarian the best equipped professional to provide complete equine dental care.

Veterinary school curriculums and continuing education programs have advanced the equine dental knowledge base, thus accommodating the increased awareness of the horse-owning public. The American Association of Equine Practitioners alone has offered multiple dental courses and wet labs to its members.

Improved instrumentation, especially mouth speculums and power tools, have become widely available and cost-effective. These tools--along with the use of sedation for examination and routine floating--make the once mundane, labor-intensive, and inexact dental work the science it is today.

Better understanding of dental pathology and how to stop the progression of dental disease before it causes tooth loss and other related health problems, allow the horse to keep its teeth to a very old age. Diseased teeth can lead to health-related problems such as esophageal choke, aspiration pneumonia, colic, vegetative endocarditis, and unthriftiness of the equine athlete. If a horse lives long enough, it will eventually lose its teeth or wear them smooth. Specially designed feeds help manage and maintain the dentally challenged equine patient, especially the geriatric horse.

Scientific revelations in genetics might help in the future with breeding selection to reduce congenital or genetically predisposed dental problems. The use of orthodontic devices and surgical manipulation enable veterinarians to correct many congenital dental abnormalities.

Superior and more accessible imaging equipment and techniques, with access to specialists worldwide via the Internet, allow prompt diagnosis and consultation for horses with unique and/or complicated dental problems. Looking below the gum line and viewing dental structures helps veterinarians "see" far more than ever before. Professional working relationships between dental practitioners (human dentists and veterinarians) and other veterinary specialists such as radiologists, surgeons, and internists encourage a "team approach" to diagnosis and treatment of dental-related problems.

Research in tooth development and structure now receives not only research dollars, but the interest and attention of researchers worldwide. They have illuminated equine dentistry by giving us a better understanding of gross, microscopic, and ultrastructural composition of normal and diseased teeth.

For years, ignorance and superstition led the way in the care of equine teeth. Research and continuing education are paving the way for a bright future for equine dental health and comfort. h

Editor's Note: See page 39 for the first of a six-part dentistry series.

About the Author

Jack Easley, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP

Jack Easley, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP (Equine), is a private equine practitioner serving the Central Kentucky area. While his practice provides all equine services, his passion of 35 years has been equine dentistry. He lectures and teaches worldwide, contributes to lay horse magazines and journals, and is the co-author of the three editions of the textbook Equine Dentistry.

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