May 2008

Equine Dentistry

Horses, dogs, cattle and cowboys

Reality Demands A Better Solution
By Karen Brown, Staff Writer

Equine Dentistry - Reality Demands A Better Solution

The legal battle by lay dentists for the right to continue practicing their craft is working its way through the court system. The outcome of this case is critical for horses because it will greatly affect the field of dentistry in terms of the availability and quality of practitioners.

Dr. Clay Stubbs, of Johnson City, TX is renowned throughout the United States as one of the country’s foremost equine dentists. Clay Stubbs, DVM, has devoted the past 18 years of his practice entirely to the study and application of equine dentistry. As the Chairman of a Task Force established by the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA) created to develop guidelines for resolving the legal and ethical issues pertaining to lay dentists, he has studied the issue exhaustively.

Stubbs is one of the few people to study equine dentistry in depth. One method of self- educating was to study the mouths of hundreds of cadavers.  Another was to re-examine horses at short intervals rather than on an annual basis. “I made a habit of going back into the horse’s mouths at frequent intervals after floating to see what changes were occurring. When you track the changes every 2-3 months, over the course of a year you can find out how effective your initial work was and how long a ‘float’ really lasts. This is something that very few people have done. They float the teeth and then won’t see the horse again for another a year. It’s a lot of trouble, it costs you a lot of money, but education isn’t free,” says Stubbs.

In Texas, the practice of dentistry falls within the broad scope of veterinary medicine. Historically, dentistry has been practiced by lay persons and animal doctors since the first floating tools were created. In recent years, with the ever-increasing use of power tools and the absolute necessity of sedatives, the veterinary medical community has begun to object to the practice of dentistry by non-vets.
The impending court decision will only determine if lay dentists can legally continue working. It will not address any of the issues that ultimately affect the safety and welfare of horses. “Dentistry has been perceived as a very simple procedure that anybody can do. It’s not. It should be thought of as a series of complicated surgical procedures. If it was thought of like that, most vets would think differently about performing dentistry. It needs to be acknowledged as a specialty just like surgery and treated as such by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and the profession in general,” says Stubbs.

On the surface, eliminating lay dentists from the field of dentistry appears to be a logical step in protecting horses. However, reality demands a better solution. The Texas Horse Council reports there are nearly 1 million horses in the state. The TVMA lists 133 members as equine vets, yet only handful practice dentistry full-time. It is physically impossible for veterinarians to meet the demand for equine dentistry. There are simply not enough of them to perform all the work. The odds of filling the demand through vet school graduates are nil. Dr. Leon Scrutchfield, recently retired Professor from Texas A&M, says few large animal vet students express the intention to focus on dentistry as a full time occupation when they graduate. It is clear that technicians will have to be used in order to fill the demand for comprehensive dentistry.

According to Stubbs, there are 3 main issues pertaining to protecting the health and safety of the horses. These are: 1) accountability, 2) medications, and 3) initial and continuous education. Whether the practitioner is lay or vet, there should be equal and quantitative requirements in each of these areas. “Competency is a must,” Stubbs emphasizes.

As to accountability, he says, “Veterinarians are licensed, so we know who they are. Lay dentists are completely unregulated at this time. We shouldn’t try to put the good dentists out of business; but we do need to make them accountable in terms of verifiable knowledge, fiscal responsibility to the owner, and for the health and safety of the horse. Part of the problem is that horse owners don’t have a way to know who is competent and who is not.”

“Dentistry has reached such a level of specialization that it is time to regard it as a separate field, just like internal medicine, surgery, or reproduction,” says Stubbs. “Every equine dentist, whether lay or vet, should meet minimum standards based on up to date comprehensive dental practice.” A certification process would provide testing with minimum passing scores on theory and practical exams and a means of keeping track of every dental technician. Continuing education could be required as a means to keep these technicians updated on new developments.

Competency is a must!The hottest issue in this battle is the administration of prescription drugs. Without a means to educate technicians in pharmacology, Stubbs proposes a workable solution, “Dental technicians, who have been extensively trained in comprehensive dentistry, should be certified to work in conjunction with a vet. The vet will be responsible for the administration of drugs and assessing the overall health of the horse. The dental work would be the responsibility of the technician under reasonable supervision of a knowledgeable veterinarian.”

He continues, “You can also leave the drug issue between the owner and the vet. If the vet feels comfortable with a particular owner’s ability to use drugs safely, then the owner could be given the responsibility for the use of the drugs. We now have intramuscular sedatives that are just as effective as intravenous, and they don’t have to be given in the vein.”

Inter-carotid injections are one of the biggest dangers in administering drugs intravenously. It’s easy to miss the jugular vein and inject into the carotid accidentally because the carotid artery lies just beneath the jugular vein. With an intramuscular injection, that danger is eliminated. The risk of adverse reactions to the IM sedative is extremely small. It does take a little longer for the drug to take affect.

“By allowing the vet to work with his clients he would have knowledge and control over the situation. The owner can take responsibility for his own horses and what is being given to them, and the dentist can do work he is specially trained to do. It’s not an ideal situation but it is a workable solution for the time being while better guidelines are put in place,” explains Stubbs.  There would need to be a veterinarian/client/patient relationship with record keeping requirements to prevent diversions or misuse of the drugs.

Continuing education is another issue, particularly in the case of vets who may have graduated from school before power tools were in use or before the latest procedures were developed. Most lay schools have been in operation for less than 10 years, so those students should have been exposed to some of the more recent developments.

Stubbs talks about one of the major changes in dentistry, “Power tools have become very popular in the last few years. But several of these power tools still don’t allow the dentist to do a good job, especially in the back of the horse’s mouth. The tool can’t be positioned correctly to grind the surfaces sufficiently to last more than a few weeks or months. The goal of a floating procedure is to grind enough in the right places to ensure that no sharp edges or points will reform within a year’s time. If the dentist can achieve that, which is possible only with the appropriate tools, then the owner or trainer can expect the horse to perform without any pain or resistances due to issues coming from the mouth.”

The teeth can cause many behavior problems, but current application of dentistry doesn’t address the myriad of problems the teeth can cause in behavior. Stubbs continues, “The problem with hand tools is that you can’t remove enough enamel to get a long lasting effect.  Points are a function of wear, as the tooth wears away the points reform. The most critical part of the mouth is the very back and it’s the hardest to do. Dentistry is about pain management. We need to fix all the bites and do all the proper things we can, but the main thing we do is eliminate mouth pain.”

Stubbs talks about dentistry before the advent of power tools, “Back when everybody had hand tools we didn’t do a lot of good, but we didn’t do much harm. With the use of power tools, we now have the capability to really do some damage. That is an inherent problem which is why we need regulation for anybody performing dentistry.”

Stubbs believes a group of well-educated dentists need to come together to develop criteria for teaching and applying correct dental procedures. He states, “There needs to be a method of recordation about what procedures work and what doesn’t. We need the AAEP to allocate some funds to research dentistry problems and procedures for prevention and repair. The teeth affect the overall health of the horse and also can be a great source of pain which in turn affects performance.”

“There are not enough vets to do this work; we’ve got to work out a situation where technicians can be used. This is only going to get worse, not better. The more people get educated on comprehensive dentistry, the greater the demand for quality dentists, but the supply is going down. It’s going to have to become a field of its own. It may take many years, but we need some way to protect the public and the horses in the interim. In the long run, dentistry needs to be developed as a separate field of medicine just like with humans,” he concludes.
Stubbs sums up, “The veterinarians and the lay dentists have to find a way to work together. No good can come from fighting with one another.”

Anyone interested in commenting on solutions to the dental dilemma may send comments to or call 830-796-4764.

Dr. R. Clay Stubbs
2928 Flat Creek Rd.
Johnson City, TX. 78636
Phone: (830) 868-7544
Fax: (830) 868-9368

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