Veterinarian: Taking a Bite out of Equine Dental Work

Veterinarian: Taking a Bite out of Equine Dental Work

by Doug Thal, DVM DABVP
A few nights ago, a 16-year old Tennessee Walker gelding was referred to our veterinary practice by another vet for severe colic. It had been unresponsive to treatment and the owner was interested in colic surgery, if needed.

The horse arrived dead in the trailer. I performed a post-mortem exam and found a massively ruptured stomach. There was a soup of beet pulp everywhere, spread around the entire abdomen and coating all the organs. The horse died of shock from overwhelming toxicity.

Recently, this horse received “special and corrective” dentistry by a lay dental practitioner operating illegally in the state of New Mexico. Following the procedure, the horse could not chew hay so this non-veterinarian prescribed a diet of only beet pulp gruel for weeks to months after the procedure. The horse was two-weeks into this regimen when it died. Several other horses in the same barn were treated by this lay practitioner and were prescribed the same regimen!

 I had a horse arrive at my clinic dead in the trailer a few days ago. It recently had dental work performed.

Why did the horse’s stomach rupture? Nobody knows for sure, but massive gas production from fast-fermenting beet pulp could have been a contributor. Bottom line, the stress caused to a horse by being unable to chew is a trigger for all kinds of other serious problems.

A veterinarian floating a horse’s teeth. Photo © AVMA
The dentistry performed was all done in the name of “correcting” the horse’s bite. Here are some points I would like to make about this:
– The horse’s mouth has evolved over millions of years to do what is needed. What makes us think we need to radically change the shape of the teeth just because we now have the power tools to do it? Show me some evidence that it really helps the horse. Or don’t bother, because you won’t find any! Think about what horses have accomplished through history, without that kind of radical intervention.
– Above all, DO NO HARM. That is something that is taught to us in veterinary school. If I am presented a healthy horse, I am extremely reluctant to perform any procedure that results in their inability to chew for weeks to months, in the name of “balancing their mouth.” As a horse owner or caretaker, you should be highly suspicious of any treatment (performed by a vet or non-vet) that takes your seemingly healthy horse and results in weeks (even days) of obvious suffering.
– We have learned that by grinding away surface of the tooth, we are also opening up pulp cavities and contacting sensitive tissue. We DAMAGE the teeth when we are too aggressive. More is not necessarily good! The trend in the veterinary industry is towards recommending regular dental examinations, and only performing dentistry when it is necessary.
– Can’t do what you think you should be able to do with your horse, and think their mouth or teeth is the reason? Have an experienced vet evaluate the horse, their behavior, and their mouth. Sure it might relate to the mouth, but it also might NOT. By all means, have them do basic dentistry (or have their dental technician do it) to remove sharp dental overgrowths to be sure that discomfort is not part of the picture. Then please be sure to take a good honest look at your own skills. Do this before you come to the conclusion that your inability to do what you want to do with your horse can be fixed with radical dental adjustment.
– I understand, not all vets are good equine dentists and this has opened up an opportunity for others to seize the opportunity. And on the flip side, some lay dentists are excellent technicians. But the best lay equine dentists work with a vet who determines the cause of the problem (a diagnosis) and performs the sedation.
Choose a vet with an interest and experience in equine dentistry. There are many vets that have an interest, have worked in thousands of equine mouths, and most importantly, understand the whole animal in a way that no lay dentist does. Not only do we have the training to understand what is needed, we have the experience, vision and judgment to understand what is NOT needed.
– Importantly, unlike lay equine dentists, vets are licensed and regulated. If you are dissatisfied, you can file a complaint with the board of veterinary medicine. My client with the dead horse has nowhere to go. There is no license to revoke and no recourse unless she undertakes the expensive burden to pursue the non-veterinarian in court.
– If you plan to use a lay dentist, check your state laws and asked them the appropriate questions. In most states, it is illegal for a non-vet dentist to practice unless supervised by a veterinarian.
– Equine sedatives are powerful drugs. In many (if not all) states they should only be used by lay equine dentists under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian.
Under no circumstances should lay dentists be injecting your horse with these medications without that supervision.
There is no question that domestic horses need dental management – and some require more than others. Certainly, careful examination and a diagnosis is indicated when there is a problem that might relate to the teeth. However the art of equine dentistry is to remove dental material that is harmful to the horse without taking away vital tissue and without causing undue suffering. That starts with a VETERINARY examination and a DIAGNOSIS.