Thoughts on Equine Dentistry

I believe very few aspects of equine health care have attracted as much attention and advanced as rapidly in the past five years as the practice of equine dentistry. There have been rapid technological developments in the equipment and methodology of floating teeth, and a renewed understanding and interest in maintaining proper dental alignment for your horse's comfort, health, and performance.

Concomitant with this dental revival trend is the emergence of non-veterinarian "equine dentists" who, armed with new-age tools, are showing up in stables, farms, and tracks across the country and performing dentistry on thousands of horses each year. Many of these "lay dentists" are the products of the few "schools" that have recently developed, purportedly to train, test, and certify candidates as "dental technicians" to service the equine industry's dental needs.

The problem is that these individuals are misrepresented to the public as experts. "Lay dentists" might simply attend a one week course that costs $400, take a test, buy some instruments, put a few initials after their names, and call themselves "certified dental technicians." If they fail the certification test, they can retake the course again and again until it's passed. These "schools" have no accredited or refereed curriculums, no background education requirements, no internship or apprentice periods, and require no continuing education.

Most states have laws pertaining to this issue, and they usually fall under the Veterinary Practice Act of that state. These Acts limit certain activities to licensed veterinarians or licensed veterinary technicians in order to protect the consumer. Veterinary dentistry is one of those areas. In Oregon, for example, a veterinary technician can perform dentistry, but only under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian. The reasons for this are many, but here are three good ones.

  • The law protects consumers from fraud. Most horse owners are unaware that "lay dentists" might perform unnecessary and inappropriate procedures.
  • "Lay dentists" are not held accountable for their performance and have no malpractice or liability insurance. Veterinarians are held liable under the law, which is another reason why technicians must work under veterinary supervision.
  • Many horses receiving a dental procedure require sedation, which can be administered only by a licensed veterinarian who is best able to determine the proper type, dose, duration, and degree of sedation required. Many sedatives are strictly regulated by the DEA, which connects back to the liability and accountability issues.

When I follow up on the work of lay dentists, I often see problems. The most common error I see is over-floating. This is when the molars are ground smooth and are rounded and buffed so that they resemble human teeth. This practice can remove up to 50% of the table chewing (occlusal) surface available to your horse. In some cases, the molars are reduced so much that they do not contact each other when the mouth is closed, thereby making mastication difficult. Incisor reduction is needed to correct this problem.

I also see the premature extraction of deciduous (baby) teeth, both incisors and molar caps. This "fashionable" procedure exposes the gum tissue and underdeveloped permanent teeth to disease and possible decay, and causes the horse much discomfort. Excessive bit seats, canine reduction, and jaw alignment procedures are other practices routinely performed that are of questionable benefit to your horse, and are undoubtedly a detriment to your pocketbook.

There is currently no standard by which to educate, train, certify, and judge equine dental technicians. Through improved curriculums at universities around the country, graduate veterinarians are being better prepared to perform equine dentistry. But equine dental technicians are a relatively new entity and a unified, standardized plan for their education and certification does not exist. At the Bend Equine Medical Center in Oregon, we are developing such a plan and hope to present it to the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) for consideration and approval. This plan will also be presented to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) task force evaluating the dental issue later this year. If the AAEP and the American Veterinary Medical Association endorse the plan, it could serve as a pilot program for other state veterinary associations.

This plan would require the candidate to have a minimum of two years of college education or at least two years of full time employment as a veterinary technician. This individual would then have to study a standardized curriculum focusing on equine dentistry, and pass a certification exam that has been carefully refereed and approved by a committee of veterinarians from universities and private practice. Successful completion of the above requirements would ensure that the technician would be employable by a veterinarian to help provide quality veterinary dental care, and fulfill the requirements of each state's practice acts to protect the public from inadequately trained individuals.

Equine veterinarians are dedicated to the health and welfare of your horse, and the management of your horse's teeth falls under the umbrella of veterinary medicine. We are proud to be at the forefront of equine dental practice, and we encourage anyone who wants to learn more about dentistry in horses to contact his/her veterinarian or call us at the Bend Equine Medical Center, 19121 Couch Market Rd., Bend, OR 97701; 541/388-4006.

About the Author

Daniel Harrison, DVM

Daniel Harrison, DVM, is the owner/partner in a three-veterinarian private practice at the Bend Equine Medical Center in Bend, OR.

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