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Equine Dentistry: Why Equine Veterinarians are Uniquely Qualified

By Jack Easley, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP/ Eq. Dipl. AVDC/Equine

Finding the right person to provide dental care for your horse can be confusing.  Proper dental care is key to maintaining overall health and just as with other important areas of equine health, owners should consult an equine veterinarian about the best health-care practices.  To make an educated decision, it helps to understand the extensive education, in-the-field and on-the-job training and continuing education veterinarians complete in order to provide a high level of professional care.

Veterinary Education Requirements

All undergraduate students interested in veterinary medicine are required to complete college course work over and above general language and liberal arts classes.  Prerequisite work includes courses in higher mathematics, biology and animal science.  Most veterinary colleges also require animal laboratory and veterinary work experience prior to acceptance. 

Veterinary school encompasses four years of graduate-level course work.  First-year students are exposed to 900-1200 hours of classroom, clinical and laboratory instruction.  Classes include gross anatomy, history, physiology, nutrition, animal husbandry, microbiology and virology.  Curricula cover the study of normal muscle, nerve and bone formation of the mouth, comparative dental structures and function, and the effect of teeth and oral cavity function on digestion and absorption of nutrients. 

Second year veterinary students concentrate on the study of disease processes including diseases of the oral cavity, muscles of mastication, nerves and joint disorders.  They learn how the masticatory system relates to the function of other body systems, the bones that support the teeth and associated structures necessary for eating.  Additionally, students are expected to learn pharmacology, how drugs work in the body, principles of drug selection, adverse drug reactions, toxicities and principles of pain management.  Vacation time and breaks from school offer students additional time to concentrate on areas of special interest—one of which is dentistry.

The third year of veterinary school focuses on more exposure to medical and surgical disciplines, radiology and endoscopic techniques, ultrasonography and therapeutic practices. Lectures as well as hands-on dry laboratory work and surgical labs define and refine students’ clinical skills.

The summer after third year, most veterinary schools direct their students into a 12-month clinical rotation schedule.  Formal classroom lecture is limited to smaller groups with a narrower topic.  Students rotate through all clinical areas of the hospital but may concentrate more hours in an area of special interest (equine, food animal, small animal, research, etc.)  During equine field service rotations, students are instructed in the finer points of oral examination and dental charting. Proper dental corrective procedures are performed with both hand instruments and power equipment.  Students received guidance from instructors on both the science and art of practice as they deal with university animals as well as private practice patients. During hospital rotations, students work up cases consisting of a large number of unusual referral horses offering exposure to a vast array of case material using the most advanced diagnostic equipment.

Equine rotations in- and outside of the veterinary school setting include instruction on animal restraint, performance of a complete oral examination and recovering clinical findings.  Diagnostic techniques such as sinoscopy, skin and bone biopsy, cytology, blood sample collection, radiology (safety, positioning, developing and interpretation), endoscopic evaluation and neurological assessment further advance students toward their goals.  For students interested in equine practice and particularly dentistry, elective courses and laboratories are available on tooth extraction, sinus flap surgery, tooth repulsion and treatment of oral and sinus tumors. 

Many schools offer off-campus preceptorships for senior students.  Many students, with an interest in equine elect to spend several weeks in an approved practice at which time they are mentored in the “real world” of private practice.  These extern blocks are structured and graded but allow some flexibility for students to pursue practical exposure and advanced training in an area of special interest.  Many senior students choose to spend several days, weeks or even months studying equine dentistry.

Upon completion of four years of fulltime study, the veterinary student must pass testing in all the described classes.  To be qualified to work as a regular veterinarian and issue state and federal health certificates, the veterinary graduate must pass a federal examination issued by the US Department of Agriculture. Each state in the United States also requires a status examination and qualification process to be licensed by the particular state and thus practice in that state.

Graduation and Beyond

The course work and training required of a student to graduate from veterinary school ultimately prepares them to provide medical, surgical and dental care while protecting the health and welfare of their equine patients.  A veterinarian is trained to protect the food supply, prevent the spread of infectious or zoonotic diseases, care for mankind’s companions and safeguard the financial investments clients have made in their animals.  Veterinarians are expected to read and critically evaluate scientific research and adapt it to clinical practice. 

Many veterinarians who plan to enter equine practice after graduation choose to work a year in a rotating internship. They have the option to go into general practice or pursue specialty training through a two- or three-year residency. These programs are available in surgery, reproduction, medicine, dentistry, ophthalmology, pathology or equine practice. Only veterinarians who complete a postdoctoral specialty-training program and successfully pass an extensive battery of examinations are designated as a specialist such as a surgeon, dentist or ophthalmologist. 

Licensed veterinarians are compelled to meet the ever-changing challenges presented in all fields of veterinary medicine including equine dentistry.  They must commit to a lifetime of continuing education.  Such opportunities are offered year-round by the AAEP and other veterinary organizations.  Specifically related to equine dentistry, short courses and hands-on wet labs are offered annually by the AAEP, American Veterinary Dental Society (AVDS), American Veterinary Dental Forum, British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), local, state, national and international veterinary associations.

Choosing the Most Qualified Professional

Before you, as an owner, select someone to perform dental procedures on your horse, the question must be asked:  Do you want the most educated and trained individual to care for your horse?  Do you want the assurance that a licensed professional will be available and accountable to you and your horse in the hours and days following care?  If the answer is yes, then an equine veterinarian is the professional who can best meet your horse’s dental needs.  This same level of consideration and caution should be given for all aspects of your horse’s health. 

For more information above equine dental care and your horse’s individual needs, talk with your equine veterinarian.

Dr. Easley of Shelbyville, KY is an officer of the AAEP and has served on the Equine Dentistry Committee.

Reviewed and updated by original author in 2016.