Virginia to Regulate Equine Dentists

There are perhaps 300 people in the nation, and a few dozen in Virginia, who claim the title of "horse dentist," in the obscure trade that dates to at least the 13th century. Normally known only to horse owners and veterinarians, it has been in the political spotlight of late.

Last week, Virginia joined the growing number of states that have passed laws to regulate the lay profession.

Jayme Leonard of Virginia Beach has been an equine dental technician for 16 years and works with more than a dozen local veterinarians. She helped write the new statute and guidelines that protect horses, owners and the livelihoods of dental technicians. Yet they also make many veterinarians and the state Board of Veterinary Medicine happy with compromises that ensure quality care, accountability and criteria for what constitutes a lay professional.

Horses grind their food, which is why their teeth continue to grow throughout their lives. Their teeth must be flat and dull for them to have a proper chewing surface. Uneven teeth can cause serious health problems, affect their ability to eat and change their performance and temperament.

According to the International Association for Equine Dentistry, a group that sets professional standards and evaluates and certifies practitioners, dental technicians have been under a lot of pressure over the past few years.

"Now that we charge more than $30 per horse, and you don't have to do all the work by hand, the vets want total control," said IAED Vice President David Butts in an e-mail.

Equine dentistry done by hand is hard, labor-intensive, time-consuming work. Power tools have made the job easier, quicker and cost productive.

The matter has become such an issue that the state board was asked to determine whether equine dentists were practicing veterinary medicine without a license, which is illegal in Virginia. The board determined that it is not veterinary medicine but needed some oversight.

Leonard, an IAED-certified dental technician and former executive board member, still does the job mostly the old-fashioned way because the floats can get into nooks and crannies that power tools can't. She said using the power tools for longer than 25 seconds at a time may damage teeth and kill the tissue that makes them grow.

It's a big step, she said, that the new law recognizes IAED-certified dental technicians. Leonard, a wife and mother of two adults sons, is a founding member of the Virginia Equine Dental Technicians' Association.

"Until recently, dental care for horses has been a rather overlooked aspect of equine health care," she said.

Leonard, like many dental technicians, works with a vet to examine the animal and, if necessary, sedate it.

Even when treating well-tended horses that get annual dental checkups, such as those in the mounted police patrol unit, Leonard said there's still a chance of finding a surprise every once in a while because, well, they're horses, not humans.

If, for example, a horse has a piece of twig trapped between back molars, it can't tell its rider what's the matter.

"But," she said, smiling up at a patient, "everything is pretty routine so far, which is what we like."--Janette Rodrigues,
The Virginian-Pilot/The Associated Press

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