Using a Veterinarian Versus a Non-Veterinarian Equine Dentist

Equine dentist using speculum and power floater to care for horse's teeth.
Equine dentist using speculum and power floater to care for horse's teeth.

As equine health care continues to advance, methods once considered exotic are becoming routine in keeping our horses happy and healthy. A quick perusal of advertisements in any equestrian publication or website reveals an army of massage therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and even animal communicators ready to help your equine partner perform to the best of his abilities. And just as with humans, often included in a complete healthcare regimen is a regular visit with the dentist.

Jack Easley, DVM and student discussing equine dental procedures

Jack Easley, DVM and student discussing equine dental procedures

Dr. Easley represents a growing number of veterinarians that specialize in equine dentistry and dental surgery.
© 2012 by Jack Easley, DVM

Equine dentistry used to cross owners' minds only if they happened to observe their horse dropping feed from his mouth or tossing his head when bridled; but today, there is much more to equine dentistry than just "floating" molars with manual hand tools to help a horse chew his grain more efficiently.

Equestrians are becoming more knowledgeable about the benefits of regular dental care for their horses' overall well-being and athletic performance. In addition, professionals practicing dentistry are increasingly well-educated and experienced, and are using much-improved equipment, such as power tools.

"Dentistry involves doing an examination, making a diagnosis, and treating a condition," says Jack Easley, DVM, MS, of Easley Equine Dentistry in Shelbyville, KY, who is also a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Dentistry Committee. "It's very different from just floating teeth, which is no longer an acceptable quality of care for dentistry."

Is using a non-veterinarian dentist legal where I live?

As demand for proper oral care in the horse world has grown dramatically in the last twenty years, it is common to find non-veterinary equine dental technicians practicing in most areas of the country, routinely visiting farms and racetrack backstretches with speculums and stainless steel buckets full of tools to peer inside horses' mouths and file down sharp edges of tooth enamel.

But as demand increases, their practice has now put them directly at odds with licensed veterinarians who believe equine dentistry is fundamentally veterinary in nature, and therefore, in the best interest of horses' welfare, should only be performed by an actual veterinarian.

Adding to the confusion, different states have enacted varying degrees of laws regulating dentistry, and these policies continue to evolve:

  • In a few states (such as Texas and Oklahoma), only licensed veterinarians may perform dental procedures.
  • Other states require non-veterinary technicians to have a veterinarian physically on-site during any dental work.
  • In Arizona and Virginia, dentistry can be performed under the indirect supervision of a veterinarian.
  • Several other states have no current restrictions on who practices equine dentistry, but many pending regulations are under review and may change.

How do horse owners not only figure out what's best for their horses, but what's legal where they live? "Ask your veterinarian," said Dr. Easley. "Since each state is different, your veterinarian (who is required to be licensed to practice in that state) should know what the rules and regulations are."

Advantages of using a veterinarian dental care provider:

  • Your veterinarian has the advantage by being familiar with your horse from regular visits. "You have a relationship established with your vet, and he already knows what your horse's issues are," said Dr. Easley. "And often a dental visit can be combined with other routine work, such as vaccinations."
  • Because of this established relationship with your vet, he/she is readily available for any required follow-up work resulting from the dental care.
Dr. Ann Wimmer floats teeth as part of her equine veterinary practice

Dr. Ann Wimmer floats teeth as part of her equine veterinary practice

Many large animal veterinarians offer dental floating and surgery as part of a total care package for their equine customers.
©EquiMed, 2012

  • Veterinarians are licensed professionals who have had extensive education in many veterinary areas (not just dentistry) and can consider oral care and related issues as part of the overall "big picture" of your horse's health.
  • Only a veterinarian may administer any necessary sedatives for procedures, or prescribe medications (such as painkillers or antibiotics) to treat dental conditions.
  • If a serious dental issue is discovered, your veterinarian is capable of performing any necessary treatments or surgery to properly address the situation.
  • Veterinarians are licensed, regulated, and insured to practice veterinary medicine under the auspices and guidelines of state laws, veterinary boards, and national organizations, such as the AAEP. They are also required to regularly fulfill continuing education requirements and maintain certifications.

While curricula on oral care may have been limited in the past, veterinary schools are now placing more emphasis on dental training. An increasing number of veterinarians are skilled in dental work and, like Dr. Easley, even choose to specialize in this area. "Veterinarians are providing better dental care for horses today than ever before," he explained. "Of course there are some veterinarians who don't want or like to do dental work," noted Easley, "but if your regular vet is unwilling or unable to provide that service, he'll be in the best position to recommend someone who he feels confident in performing that work, whether it be another vet or a dental technician (if legal in your state)."

Advantages of using a non-veterinarian dental technician (where legal):

  • Non-veterinary dental technicians have become common in the horse world.
  • Many of these individuals have developed great technical skill, are dedicated to their work, and use state-of-the-art equipment.
  • Often, dental practitioners have attended some sort of technical training in equine oral care, some with "certification" from one of several independent equine dentistry courses, schools, or organizations, such as the International Association of Equine Dentistry (IAED).
  • Horse owners across the country report favorable results from their equine dental technicians and see increasing regulation as a violation of their right to manage their own animal’s health care.
  • In some areas of the country, owners report facing a challenge in finding a vet who is willing or has time for dental work. In these cases, non-veterinary dental technicians may fill a void in equine health care.
  • Movement is underway to better organize independent non-veterinary dental workers in an effort to address regulatory concerns.

As the debate continues, horse owners find themselves caught in the middle. As with any aspect of equine health care, equestrians must educate themselves about the issue, consider as much information as is available, and try to make the best decision for their horses' health and well-being.

"Ultimately, it is up to the consumer to make sure the people they hire (whether veterinarian or not) are qualified to do what they say they're going to do," explained Dr. Easley. "But be safe - always be sure to ask for some sort of credentials, and there needs to be accountability for the quality of work performed."

Jack Easley, DVM, MS is founder of Easley Equine Dentistry in Shelbyville, KY, and is also a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Dentistry Committee.

About the Author

Jennifer M. Keeler

Originally from upstate New York, Jennifer is a lifelong horsewoman and graduate of the University of Kentucky. She spent the early years of her career in the advertising, retail, equine management and veterinary fields. Jennifer then spent more than eight years with the United States Equestrian Federation as the National Director of Dressage.

Now a published author and photographer, Jennifer is doing what she loves by continuing her career in the equine industry. She is currently the owner of Yellow Horse Marketing, which specializes in public relations work for equine organizations, companies, and competitions.

Jennifer lives just outside Lexington, KY, and competes in hunters, dressage, and pleasure driving with her World Champion palomino Quarter Horse, "Whistlin Dixi Time", as well as combined driving with her rescued Hackney pony, "Harpo".