Growing support for equine dental specialists

  • Horse dentistry, and who should carry it out, is a much-discussed topic among horse owners. In reality, many people use either a vet with a specific interest and proper equine dentistry training or a trained and qualified equine dental technician, but some still use the local “tooth fairy”. Such individuals are known as “tooth raspers” — because that is basically all they are permitted to do without a properly approved qualification.

    As more people want their horses’ teeth looked at properly, equine dentistry has developed from the quick “while you are here, will you just check the teeth?” to a major part of veterinary practice in the UK. It also provides employment for many equine dental technicians (EDTs), who have undergone recognised training and care for horses’ teeth as a full-time career.

    The Veterinary Record recently published an interesting report on routine preventative dental care in horses in the UK and Ireland. This was the result of a questionnaire completed by horse owners, trainers and equestrian managers (807 in the UK and 47 in Ireland) on their attitudes towards prophylactic dental care for their animals.

    Overall, the vast majority (83%) of respondents said they arranged routine treatment at fixed intervals. A few (10%) arranged treatment when they felt it was required and even fewer (7%) provided no treatment at all.

    Equine dental technicians (EDTs) provided all the treatment for more than half (53%) of owners, while just over a third (35%) of owners relied solely on vets. According to this survey, only 1% of those questioned used unqualified individuals who were neither vets nor EDTs, although this may reflect the group surveyed. Those who never bother with their horses’ teeth are presumably unlikely to fill in a survey to admit their neglect.

    The same survey commented that there was confusion among some horse owners concerning the qualifications of EDTs. Some stated that they were more likely to choose a vet than an EDT because they were more qualified for the work, but almost as many said they chose an EDT because they felt these had more qualifications. There is now a recognised qualification for EDTs and even a three-year degree course is available — see http://www.equinedentistry.org.uk for more details. However, some individuals advertise their skills when they have minimal qualifications. The survey indicated that horse owners found it hard to differentiate between different levels of qulification.

    The survey showed large differences between different areas. For instance, in Midlothian, owners were nearly three times as likely to have their horses teeth treated at six-monthly intervals. In the same area, only vets performed dental work for more than half (52%) of owners, whereas in the adjacent Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, they performed dental work for less than a quarter (24%). In Kent, only vets performed routine dental care for approximately half the owners, while Kent vets were cited as the main source of information on equine dentistry for nearly three-quarters of horse owners there (73%). The fact that they did not do as much dentistry suggested that they may have recommended other individuals to do it.

    Use of sedation for routine dental treatment varied. Just over a quarter (27%) of owners in Co Durham, Kent, Ireland, Somerset and Yorkshire had some of their horses sedated for dentistry. Sedation was used more often when vets rather than EDTs performed routine dentistry. Legally, a vet should sedate a horse and give other treatments, such as anti-tetanus vaccinations, which should be up to date if the teeth are being treated.

    When giving reasons about who was selected to do their horses’ teeth, some (6%) of owners chose a vet because they sedated their horse, while a similar number (7%) chose EDTs because they did not sedate them.

    The possession of a wide range of clean, effective equipment was cited by many owners in choosing the best person to do their horse’s teeth. Certainly, the days of the vet having a couple of tooth rasps at the back of the car are in the past. It is now possible to fill a large van with shiny kit specifically designed for the job of improving horse’s teeth in one way or another.

    In some areas surveyed, it was pointed out by some owners that failure to use a full mouth gag (speculum) indicated an inability to do the job properly. The truth is that as an observer it is hard to judge the competency of the dental treatment performed. It is important that the horse’s teeth are properly cared for, but the difficulty is being certain that this is happening.

    Comments from the same survey showed that the interest and enthusiasm of the provider of the service was crucial and related to the frequency of dental treatments. Another obvious consideration is the fact that if you ask your vet to check the teeth “while they are there”, they may not have the time to do as thorough a job as if a proper visit had been scheduled.

    If horses are going to have such time devoted to their dental care on a regular basis, it must mean that there is a need for properly trained, enthusiastic individuals to provide this service. Whether it is a vet or an EDT, it is essential that they work effectively together to ensure horses get the best treatment.

  • This veterinary feature was first published in Horse & Hound (10 February ’05)

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