Do You Really Know What Your Equine Dentist is Doing? You Should!


Recently, 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 floater 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 person, and were prescribed the same regimen!

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.

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  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 live, sensitive tissue. The teeth are not blocks of wood to be shaped as we deem desirable. 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 ie. when there are significant enamel overgrowths.

• Can’t do what you think you should be able to do with your horse? 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 probably won't.   

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 horsemanship 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 (really we should call them floaters not 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 person 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. In fact, the dentist was quite careful to cover her tracks. Her " dental report" of the work done doesn't have her name or phone number on it. She knows she is operating illegally.

• If you plan to use a non- vet to do dental work on your horses, please at least do your homework.  Check your state laws. Is it legal for someone to charge to perform dental work on your horse, without involving a vet? Ask 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 non-vets be injecting your horse 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.

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP