Using sedation in equine dental care

  • The routine dental check-up for your horse will involve a thorough inspection of the teeth to look for any disease or abnormalities. The equine dental technician (EDT) — we cannot call them dentists as this term is legally protected for the use of human dentists — may need to remove any sharp bits that can impinge on the soft tissue and cause an injury. This is known as rasping.

    Rasping accurately is a precise dental treatment that necessitates the horse wearing a gag and keeping its head relatively still. It can be carried out with either a manual or powered instrument. Consequently, if more than routine rasping is required, the EDT may suggest that sedation and therefore a further appointment, is necessary.

    If the horse is in pain, complicated procedures are involved, or the technician wishes to use power tools, sedation will be recommended. And, under the current legislation (the Medicines Act — Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2005) this has to be done by a vet.

    In these circumstances, unless your dental technician is also a qualified vet, a second appointment with the vet and the EDT is needed. The scope of work performed by non-vets is also limited by the Veterinary Surgeons Act 2006, so any invasive or surgical procedures must also be done by a vet.

    Why does a horse need sedating?

    “Many owners express concern at the use of sedation for dental treatment,” says Henry Tremaine MRCVS, senior lecturer in equine surgery at the University of Bristol, “but the benefits greatly outweigh the negatives. Sedatives reduce the horse’s anxiety, reduce its sensitivity to outside noises, relax the muscles and relieve any pain, making the treatment less noxious. Modern sedatives can be used safely in healthy horses if administered correctly by a veterinarian, and side effects are rare.”

    And, if possible, it is advisable to use a vet with knowledge of the horse’s medical history, as all the details can be taken into consideration.

    Rob Pascoe MRCVS, from Bell Equine in Kent, is one of a handful of vets who are also qualified EDTs. Rob is the current chairman of the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA)/British Veterinary Dentistry Association (BVDA) EDT exam committee. He opts for sedation if the horse’s temperament makes it necessary, whenever he is about to use powered tools, for advanced work, and occasionally when an owner may describe a problem that needs close examination.

    “I sedate so many horses during the course of dental work that I have a set of drugs I like to use, as I know the differences in their effects,” says Rob. “For me, during motorised work, the horse must be sedated. If it isn’t, it takes one instant, one wrong move, and it’s possible to catch the tongue or the palate and do a tremendous amount of damage in a short space of time.”

    Using powered rasping tools

    With the modern advances, the use of power tools has become more acceptable. Where once the average so-called horse dentist’s only option was his rasping tools, power tools have developed greatly in recent years and there is now specific equipment available for this purpose. The safe use of this equipment requires restraint and, although some horses may tolerate the quieter instruments without sedation, it is potentially very dangerous.

    “Using potent powered instruments to attempt precise treatments in unsedated, moving horses can be like threading a needle in a rowing boat on a rough sea,” points out Henry Tremaine.

    “Treatments can be performed with less distress to the horse using powered tools,” continues Henry. “Modern mechanical tools are quiet and can remove a lot of tooth in a few minutes, which means that the horse’s treatment can be performed quickly, precisely and efficiently.

    “However, if they are used inappropriately it is possible to damage the horse’s teeth. Without due care, excessive amounts of dental tissue can be removed, resulting in possible permanent damage. The mineralised dental tissues are non-regenerative, so this damage may not be apparent for some years.”

    Rob Pascoe adds: “I want to be able to see what I’m doing while I’m using a motorised tool so I can assess how close to the sensitive part of the tooth I am and know when to stop.”

    This feature was first published in Horse & Hound (18 January, ’07)

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