Equine Dentistry Evolution

EQUINE DENTISTRY HAS RE-EVOLVED to become a significant part of many equine practices. In the early 1900s through World War II, most veterinarians routinely performed dental procedures for their clients. The subsequent decrease in the use of horses resulted in less teaching of equine medicine and surgery, and equine dentistry took a backseat in the curriculum of veterinary medicine.

During the 1970s and 1980s, an increasing number of veterinarians expanded their interest in equine dentistry. Horse owners and trainers realized that properly performed equine dentistry had a beneficial effect on performance as well as feeding efficiency.

The increased interest resulted in demand for improved instrumentation and, more importantly, reduction of the physical labor involved using hand floats. The advent of more effective sedatives and analgesics came along at about the same time that electrical and air powered grinding discs and bits appeared.

The first equine dentistry committee was appointed in the spring of 1996 by Dr. Clyde Johnson, who was then president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. During the past eight years equine dentistry has made enormous progress and generated great interest. A program for certified veterinary technicians to become trained in basic equine dental procedures is being developed at Murray State University in Kentucky. Several Web sites dedicated to equine dentistry are also available.

A high percentage of all procedures, including many extractions, can be performed in the sedated-but-standing horse. More effective reshaping of abnormal teeth can be performed with electrical- or pneumatic-powered floats and grinding instruments than with hand instruments. Time needed to perform dental procedures is reduced; ease of performing them is increased.

Some studies are ongoing to determine the risks of tooth damage caused by heat that has been generated by power equipment. Due to the peculiar structure of the hypsodont (continually erupting) tooth, damage may not become apparent for several years.

Numerous theories are being presented as to what is normal tooth structure, what abnormalities are correctable, and how much correction should be done. To date, no controlled documented studies have been presented to show the benefits of aggressive rasping of the dental arcades, especially to the table surfaces of equine teeth.

Studies are needed in a number of areas. How much correction is necessary in horses less than 7 years old? When should incisor teeth be rasped back? How much correction is too much, and what are the long term effects, if any?

The greatest advances in equine dentistry may not be better drugs, instrumentation, or techniques, but more veterinarians developing an interest in improving the horse’s welfare by thorough examination of the oral cavity. The horse’s use, the nutrient source (i.e., pellets or pasture), age, and even genetics all play a role in what is observed when a complete oral exam is performed.

Universally acclaimed horseman Tom Dorrance was often asked about a training or behavioral problem with a horse. He always prefaced his answer with, “It all depends.” Many questions about equine dentistry are being asked. Each answer brings more questions and in nearly every case, “It all depends.”

CONTACT: Dr. R. Dean Scoggins, dscogginsdvm@netcare-il.com,
Villa Grove, Illinois