Originally published in the October 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Enjoyed this article? Then subscribe today!
It’s funny how much perspective time and experience bring. If there’s anything constant about veterinary medicine, it’s that it’s always changing. One of the areas of greatest change is in veterinary dentistry, not only in small animal medicine but also in horses.
Today, there seems to be a remarkable consensus that horses need occasional interventions in their mouths and frequent examination to make sure the teeth stay level, smooth, at precise occlusal angles and so forth.
I say “today” because it has not always been so. In fact, history gives some interesting perspective on the care of the horse’s mouth.
I believe two things. First, I don’t think people are smarter now than they ever were. They may know more, but they aren’t smarter. In fact, people who lived a long time ago were so smart that we keep talking about them: see Plato, Socrates, et al.
Second, I think they were much more closely associated with their horses than we are now. Whether it came to getting supplies, plowing the fields or running one of the nine kids to ballet lessons or soccer practice (well, maybe not that), in the past the horse was pretty valuable, and people lived with them and observed them closely.
So it may come as something of a surprise to learn that it wasn’t that long ago (relative to man’s association with horses) that people were not worried about the horse’s mouth being level and smooth at all. In a book that I republished, first printed in 1682 (“Snape’s Anatomy of An Horse”), Snape, the farrier to King Charles II, discussed how important it was for the horse’s teeth to be really sharp.
As everybody apparently knew at the time, smooth millstones don’t grind grain well, so you wanted to make sure that the horse’s teeth were sharp and pitted, so it could grind its grain.*
I say the consensus is “remarkable” because the scientific research has also been consistently unable to show any benefit for the horse in having its teeth floated. Several studies have failed to show that horses that get their teeth floated digest feed better, or gain weight better; one study has shown no difference in performance.
Nevertheless, in spite of the paucity of evidence, it’s remarkable that pretty much everyone agrees that leveling and smoothing the horse’s teeth is something that needs to be done, sometimes with curious senses of urgency and regularity.
My own dental practice has evolved from the use of hand floats, drawn eagerly and earnestly over the upper and lower arcades while attempting to hold onto the horse’s tongue, to the use of motorized equipment and medieval-looking dental speculums to ensure that each and every tooth is inspected and addressed for various points, edges, ramps, hooks, etc.
I’ve buttressed my equipment (with which I can unquestionably do an easier job — easier for both me and the horse) with education, too, having attended seminars, lectures, wet labs and such. And, frankly, after all that I really can’t tell that all of my new expertise and equipment have made any difference for the long-term health and longevity of the horses in my care, many of whom are well into their 30s, and some of whom I’ve taken care of since birth.
Nevertheless, the demand for dental care in the horse seems to continue on, as does the relatively vocal controversies about who is best suited to provide it.
There seems to be no dearth of non-veterinarians who claim they are experts, and also that veterinarians don’t know how to take care of horse teeth and aren’t interested anyway. Top that off with a cadre of veterinarians who want only to take care of horse teeth and have their own firmly held opinions, and it’s pretty easy to see why one might just throw one’s hands up in the air and wonder what all the fuss is about.
But if you take care of horses — even part time — be reassured that if you have even a mild amount of interest in caring for the horse’s teeth, you can provide it with a relatively minimal amount of training and equipment. It’s a good service for your clients and their horses, and it’s a good way for you to demonstrate your expertise.
It’s not really difficult to sedate a horse, provide adequate restraint and perform routine dental maintenance. I think it’s a good practice-building opportunity, and I think that it builds confidence in clients that you not only care about their horses, but that you also know what you’re doing.
You’ll be able to identify real dental pathology when it occurs — and refer for treatment, if necessary. Finally, if you examine a horse’s mouth and tell your clients that everything’s OK— that you don’t need to do anything — it helps build confidence that, above all, you’re interested in the well-being of their horse.
No matter what kind of practice you have, showing your care and expertise for your clients’ animals is always a great way to go. Even though care of significant oral pathology can be a real challenge in horses, routine care generally is not.
It’s usually well worth taking an interest in building that aspect of your equine practice. You’ll be surprised what you can do!
* “Neither are the reft of the Grinding-teeth without fome hollownefs or at leaft roughnefs in their tops; but his is of a different nature from the other: which roughnefs or unevennefs is very neceffary, for by it they are made more fit for the comminution of the Meat: For as Millers when their Millftones are grown fmooth do pick them anew, to make them grind the better; fo hath Nature made the upper part of thefe Grinding-teeth, elegantly to imitate the rough fuperficies of a Millftone, having here and there formed little pits in them.”