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12 December 2013 Healing Honey ~ what’s all the buzzzz about?

honey-potBeing an equine vet tech for 10 years brought me a fair share of jaw-dropping wounds, and even more jaw-dropping horse industry ideas on how to treat them!  It seems, when it comes to wounds, we just HAVE to put something on them.  It’s a bit like those ‘Do Not Touch’ signs – my hubby absolutely CANNOT walk past one of these without doing the exact opposite of what he’s told!   

Unfortunately, many of the heavily marketed ‘miracle’ wound concoctions on the market only serve to get in the way of the healing process (remember, wounds really do want to heal all on their own!).  Several products can be detrimental, some severely, and you can easily end up with a bigger mess than you originally started with.   Here in Australia, it appears that honey is slapped on anything that’s been afflicted by at least one layer of epithelial removal.

To be honest, I’d never even heard of honey being used in treating wounds until a short while before I landed in the lucky country.  Apparently, I’ve been living under a bale of hay because it’s been around since the ancient Egyptians.   

As you may know, I’m a bit of an eye-roller when it comes to the ‘quick-fix, one-size-fits-all, all-natural, miracle’ solutions, especially when it means you may be getting duped, and your pony pals are suffering as a result.   I didn’t earn my Research Roberts title without some serious one-on-one time with the scientific archives, so I decided it was time to trot on over and investigate this honey-boo-boo trend a bit more.

Turns out, there has been a fair bit of work published on the extent of honey’s properties in wound management.  Studies of the sweet stuff in human & animal medicine have demonstrated some beneficial wound healing properties. However, the design of a number of these studies has been criticized, and the clinical evidence to support the use of honey in superficial wounds and burns is under par.  In short, the overall impact of honey as a topical wound healing aid is unclear. 

It is accepted, however, that when it comes to wounds, some honey types have antibacterial effects and osmotic properties.  In addition, they may also help to deodorize and debride, and have pro-inflammatory and antioxidant activity.  There has been a growing perception that Manuka honey, produced exclusively by bees in New Zealand from the Manuka tree, has the best medicinal properties.  However, more recent research by the University of Glasgow found Manuka was not the only variety that was beneficial. 

In this study, Carnwath and colleagues investigated 29 different honeys, sourced from commercial medical grade honeys, grocery store honeys, and honeys from local beekeepers.  Firstly, they tested the each honey product to see if it was free from contamination and therefore suitable to be put on a wound.  Secondly, those that were deemed ‘uncontaminated’ were tested for their ability to inhibit growth of pathogens that were collected from horse wounds. 

Of the 29 honeys tested, bacteria and fungi were recovered from 18 of them (YUK!)  Ten different types of bacteria were collected from equine wounds.  Of the uncontaminated honeys, eight were effective against all ten of the wound isolates.  Interestingly, the medical grade honeys were not always the most effective, and Scottish Heather honey was the winner……  Och aye lassie!

A review of all of the available evidence on honey as a wound management aid makes it clear it should not be regarded as a ‘cure all.”  Not all of Mother Nature’s produce is beneficial, all the time, and honey is no exception.  If used inappropriately, it can actually lead to wound healing delays.  For example, due to its high osmotic effect it would be counterproductive to use honey on a dry wound, or one where the granulation tissue was slow to develop. 

So what’s take home message here?

Honey does not heal wounds, nature heals wounds.  Simply slip-slop-slapping the sweet stuff onto any old wound is not a replacement for good quality wound care.   It may APPEAR to do a very good job of healing a wound…a wound that would have likely healed just as well on its own, if kept clean and moist. However, in the overall scheme of things people like to slap on gaping areas of raw flesh, honey is likely to be one of the least concerning.

With all wound management applications, there is a right time and a wrong time to use honey, honey.  Your vet needs to evaluate when the time is right to make use of such topical applications, and the quicker he/she can do that, the better.  Remember, each horse and each wound is different, what worked for your friend’s horse, cannot simply be extrapolated to your situation.  Some of the most unimpressive wounds can create the biggest problem, especially on lower limbs where you have a lot of joints and tendons/ligaments running close to the surface.  If such structures are involved, then honey is absolutely the last thing that needs to go on, and your vet is absolutely the first person you need to call.

Honey is not simply the wonder, cure-all it’s touted to be in many horsey circles.  However, if you feel the need to fill a bare spot in your medicine cabinet, don’t run off to your local store to pick up a jar, it’s likely to have more bacteria and fungus than the wound itself!

My parting words on wounds…..

  • A wound really wants to heal itself….help, don’t hinder.
  • The solution to pollution is dilution i.e. water, water, more water. 
  • If you would not put it in your eye, do not put it on a wound!
  • All bleeding eventually stops 😉

22 October 2013 Movement – we can and we must do better!

Stables/stalls = cages for the horse. No matter how fancy you make them. We don’t think it’s fair for these guys, lion cageso what makes it OK to put a horse in one for extended periods of time?

To deprive him of the ability to move his feet is depriving him of one of his most highly motivated, basic NEEDS. At best, it is inhumane; at worst, it is blatant cruelty.  We can, and we must do better.

The freedom to move allows him to satisfy all of his other basic needs…he can move to find a variety of large amounts of forage and other foods, covering many km’s in times of scarcity; find safety & solace within the herd; and choose with whom to socialize and pro-create….when he is caged, he is totally reliant on us for EVERYTHING. We take away all of his highly instinctual choices, yet he’s MUCH better at making them than we are!

Our domesticated environment is far from his natural habitat and some compromise must be accepted. However, the more effort we make, to keep him as close to how nature intended, the happier and healthier he will be, and the more you will be able to enjoy you horse for what he truly is…a horse, of course:) 

Here’s a link to the page that inspired today’s post with a nice little vid to go with it.

08 January 2013 New Year’s Nutri-lutions: Maintain your horse at a healthy weight

Determining and monitoring your horse’s weight is a simple and essential part of your horse’s health maintenance plan.  Not only does it help you to calculate the right amount of feed to give, but it also helps to determine any drug doses, such as anthelmintics, that need to be administered.  More importantly, it is an objective way to alert you to any potential health problems (if he gains or loses weight).

weight tape

Make a serious commitment to monitor your horse’s body weight on a monthly basis and be strict about keeping it under control.  While a few modifications to your bathroom scales may be enough to avoid excess airline baggage fees, don’t try a similar method with your horse.  If you do not have access to livestock weight scales, a simple weight tape designed for horses can be used (even a piece of string will help to gauge if he’s gained or lost).  Or, if you’re looking for a more accurate indicator of weight, measure his heart, girth and body length in inches and use the following equation:   Weight (lbs) = Girth2 (in) x length (in)/330.  Or click here to get a nifty online calculator.  Much like our weight, daily fluctuations are normal; up to about 50lbs per day in the average size horse (about 1,000lbs), but any more than this should be addressed.

Body Condition Scoring is another important factor in determining an appropriate and healthy weight for your horse.  We’ll be covering that in more depth in a later blog post.

11 November 2012 Kicked to death in a horsebox – a preventable tragedy or just a risk we take?

NEVER ENTER A CONFINED SPACE WITH A PANICKING HORSE…. EVER…if this is the only piece of advice you take  from this blog, then I’ll be a happy camper.  Read on, if you want to find out why.

What the story?

Some of you may have read earlier this week about the tragic accident in the UK where a 51-year old man was kicked to death after he entered the horsebox to calm his panicking horse.  Here’s the link if you missed it.  Some people have questioned if this was a preventable tragedy, or just a risk we take when working with such large flight animals.  I happen to think it’s the former, based on a full awareness of the latter.

Why did it happen?

“It’s a horse, that’s what they do” …well, yes, but they have a really good reason for doing it, and we need to understand why, so we can take measures to prevent such accidents from happening to us, and those around us.

A horse is a large, grazing, herd animal.  Grazing animals are prey species and fear motivates them to escape from perceived danger. While herd animals benefit from the safety and solace offered by their group members, when it comes to survival,  ‘get-me-outta-here’ self preservation is the primary motivator.  Cowardly and selfish it may seem to us, but taking risks and putting your mates first, does not get you 55 million+ years of unaided species survival!

How the horse looks at the trailer in comparison to humans: top photo is human field of vision, the bottom belongs to the horse (Equine Behaviour, McGreevy, 2004)

Realize that for a horse to even entertain a trailer, particularly transported alone, is an amazing testament to their adaptability and willingness to live under our imposed human constraints.  They are evolutionarily compelled to avoid dark, narrow and confined spaces, i.e. it is a hard-wired survival instinct.  Transporting horses is a convenience we give little regard to in terms of equine health, behavior  training, and safety.  As a result, horrendous accidents, as we have seen this week, are all too common, and so often preventable.

We must understand that the horse lives in the moment and reacts to his immediate environment based primarily on instinctual behaviors, he cannot reason that help will soon come in the form of a human savior and all will be well.  To waste time thinking through things would mean certain capture and death from a predator.

Like the horse, we too have instincts, but our brains are more complex.  Unlike the horse, we think many steps ahead, we predict, analyse, reason and make a conscious decision, not always based on self-preservation.  This is why we would quite happily rush in to save our panicking horse, or why people run into burning buildings to save people/animals/belongings etc…if the horse could speak he’d tell us we were crazy…while high-tailing it as fast as possible in the opposite direction!

Horses are flight animals and fear can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including avoidance (running away), active defense (threat, attack), or the inhibition of movement, expressed as tonic immobility, known as freezing.  Although we don’t know the full details of this particular accident, it would be reasonable to assume this horse had experienced some form of aversive stimuli that initiated a pain/fear reaction.

When an acutely fearful response is encountered, both automatic neural and endocrine stress reactions occur. The nervous system goes into high alert and immediately prepares the body for flight or fight. The endocrine system triggers a cascade of events that immediately releases adrenalin and kick-starts the flight response. Once the horse is in this survival mode, his first and most preferred plan is to run and escape.  When this cannot be met, he will be forced to threaten and attack, and he will see anyone approaching as a potential predator; a threat that he has to fight for his life against. Important to remember is that once this response has been initiated, other less-important stimuli are ignored (e.g. you!) which is why he will blindly plough through everything in his path in the quest to survive. This is a hard-wired, instinct that has not been diluted due to domestication; only understanding and good training can help to avoid it.

So what should you do?

There is mounting evidence that the horse can detect human cues and attentional states, they often respond well to the familiar sound of their owner’s voice. With this in mind, the very best course of action we can take in this situation is to approach the scene in a controlled and calm manner (remember you can make a conscious decision to override your fear and react this way, the horse cannot) but KEEP OUT of the trailer, do not even lower the ramp, or open a door while the horse is panicking.  Ensure all loud noises, lights etc are eliminated and speak softly to the horse.  It may seem like an eternity before the horse regains control, or even reaches a state of  ‘freezing’, but the important thing is to KEEP OUT.  Remember, even a state of tonic immobility (freezing) can be followed by an explosive and uncontrollable last ditch attempt for self preservation.  To step into a confined space with a panicking horse, especially into his rear blind spot, not only puts YOU in extreme danger, but it may exacerbate HIS fear response and makes him panic further.

Specialist training and best practice guidelines are available to deal with this kind of emergency; all horse owners should be prepared for this kind of incident by knowing what to do.  To go into this in detail here, would be another essay in itself, so i’ll hand you over to great blog by Dr Rebecca Gimenez, considered an international leading authority on large animal emergency rescue situations.  While it pertains to an overturned trailer, it gives critical, life saving advice on dealing with similar incidents.

In the UK, we are fortunate to have all emergency responders trained to specifically deal with this kind of emergency; in the US and Australia, this is still a work in progress.  Take responsibility for your own life and the safety of others by becoming educated to the dangers of dealing with large animals.  Training is available to horse owners, across the US & Australia; more information can be found on their websites and Facebook pages, or you can contact us here at EQUIJAY and we’ll guide you in the right direction.

Take home message

BEING IN ANY CONFINED SPACE, AT ANYTIME WITH ANY HORSE, OR ANY LARGE GRAZING ANIMAL, IS ALWAYS A POTENTIAL DANGER ZONE.  Pretty much every cell in their body is about flight or fight; this instinctual body makeup is designed to override anything or anyone that may be in their path if they interpret a potentially threatening situation.

Perhaps better preparation and training may have potentially averted this accident (and this is something many people do not take the time to work on), remaining outside the trailer would most certainly have, but a better understanding of horse behavior and how he interprets the world is one of the fundamental aspects of responsible horse ownership and safe handling. Unfortunately, this came too late for this family and tragically they learned the hard way.

Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to the family for their loss; only through such tragic events can we hope to educate more people as to the potential risks of dealing with horses and other flight animals.  The responsibility for self-preservation is in your hands; please don’t become another tragedy for us all to learn from.

“Preparation through education is less costly than learning through tragedy”

20 August 2012 We’re off to a Land Down Under…

Well, we are gearing up and getting very excited for our trip to Australia here at EJ HQ!  We’ll be meeting up with several interesting equine industry contacts including their Equine Emergency Rescue Coordinator and Horses and People Magazine Editor, viewing several Equicentral (Equiculture) facilities, visiting a Permaculture project in action, and learning about the TriggerTreater – a positive reinforcement training aid….Whew!!!!   Somewhere in between all of that we will TRY to find time to soak up the wonderful sights, sounds, tastes, and hospitality of Queensland’s beautiful Gold Coast.  Look forward to sharing our trip with you in a few weeks!

13 August 2012 Supplement Sermon…part II!

Something to ponder with nutrition in ALL species is that millions of years have made mammals very good at dealing with a ‘lack’ as opposed to ‘excess’. Mammals can accommodate a temporary deficiency of anything. For example, if the diet does not provide enough vitamin A, there is a great reserve in the liver, enough to last months or even years. Not enough energy in the form of carbohydrate and fat?… no problem, the body cleverly switches to converting amino acids from protein into glucose. Calcium lacking in the blood?.. not a problem, the body will dissolve bone to bump up circulating levels (which is why Ca:P ratio is very important). Sodium scarce?…the kidneys can pretty much shut down sodium excretion, I can go on, but the point I’m trying to make is that the mammalian body is an amazingly efficient system that has a back-up allowing it to deal with lack, insufficiency, absence and shortage of nutrients. We create far more problems by over-feeding/supplementing ALL aspects of nutrition in ALL species, particularly soluble carbohydrates, than we ever will with deficiencies. Even animals on death’s door from starvation can be SLOWLY rehabilitated back to full health without any lasting deleterious effects.

The human species has long lost the conscience awareness of what is good for them and what needs to be sought out in the environment and selected as food. Animals, on the other hand still have this ability and can do it very well given a largely un-restricted environment that closely matches their natural surroundings. Our $$$, time and energy would be much better invested in gaining a better understanding of animal behaviour and how we can adapt our management practices to better mimic those the animal has evolved to thrive in, than purchasing a bag or bucket of what we believe to be a ‘quick fix’, for a problem we don’t even know exists.

18 July 2012 SUPPLEMENT SAVVY– Time To Re-Think Your Feed Room!

When I walk into a feed room like this, I know I’ve got my work cut out for me.  As an independent equine nutritionist, to be honest, this is the stuff my nightmares are made of, and it serves as a frustrating reminder that in the real world, we are still getting equine nutrition so very wrong.

Over the past decade, the world has seen an explosive growth in the dietary supplement industry, human and animal.  In fact, despite the global recession, this industry reports substantial continued growth, and is estimated to be worth US$90 BILLION by the end of 2015.  Given the impressive display of heavily marketed beneficial effects and eye-catching packaging, this isn’t at all surprising.

As conscientious horse owners, we want to provide the “very best” for our equine companions.  As a result, we often turn to supplements, ranging from high-tech chemical formulas, to ‘all natural’ mixtures of herbs and plants, to try to “improve”, or make our horses “better”…but what are we trying to ‘improve’ or make ‘better’?  Here are a few of the ways supplement companies claim they can help us in our quest for the perfect balanced diet:

  • “Improves performance!”
  • “Improves disposition!”
  • “Improves mental stability!”
  • “Boosts the immune system!”
  • “Improves digestion!”
  • “Promotes better general health!”
  • “Supports joint health!”
  • “Eliminates toxins!”

Such claims are impressive and alluring, but behind the words, the products sit in their attractive packaging remaining unproven, and protected from discovery by top-secret, ‘proprietary’ formulations.  Would you trust a stranger who offered you something to eat, but wouldn’t tell you what was in it, even if it was in a pretty packet?  Admit it would be just a little concerning!

What’s worse, the claims can be ingeniously misleading.  For example, take the word ‘performance’.  This is a vague concept that will vary depending on multiple inherent and external factors influencing how the horse performs, at a given moment in time.  Consequently, ‘improving performance’ is highly subjective, impossible to measure, and cannot be proven.

Support” is another popular term supplement companies like to apply to important bodily systems, such as the musculoskeletal system – think of all those wonderful, and largely unproven, joint supplements.  A recent review of all of the scientific literature concerning the effectiveness of osteoarthritis supplements in horses, dogs and cats concluded, “Evidence of efficacy…is poor”.  In objective, measurable, medical terms, ‘support’ has no meaning either.

Eliminates toxins” – the liver is the workhorse behind the processing and removal of toxins from the blood; think of it like a chemical processing plant, rather than a ‘filter’.  Primary liver disease in horses is rare, unless they ingest something toxic.  Horses do not have toxins casually floating around in their blood that need ‘supplemental’ help to be removed.  If they did, you can most likely guarantee their feet are going to be the first to tell you about it…. at which point, you have way more of a problem on your hands in the form of laminitis.  A serious and potentially life-threatening disorder that will require veterinary attention, not the ‘support’ of unproven, unregulated dietary supplements.

Boosting’ the immune system (implying we want it to work better than normal) is not necessarily a good thing – just observe how miserable the horse is suffering from a ‘sweet itch’ problem, or your riding buddy suffering from seasonal allergies.  Additionally, if a product tells you it can ‘boost the immune system’ and ‘treat allergies’ at the same time (probably my all time favorite asinine claim), this is an alarm-bell-ringing, red-flag-flapping, guarantee they are conning hard-earned cash out of your pocket!

Undeniably, these claims are all favorable qualities we would all want in of our horse health program.  However, such qualities remain scientifically undefined, and are therefore impossible to measure.  With no defining start point from which to ‘improve’ upon, or make things ‘better’, it is impossible to obtain scientific evidence to support any of these products do what they claim to do…exactly the way the supplement companies want it to be!

IF specific claims were made for supplements, such as “This product is proven effective for the relief of joint pain associated with osteoarthritis”, then it would fall under the rules and regulations that govern the manufacture of drugs.  Supplement manufacturers would then have to actually PROVE that their product worked, and they would be upheld to strict quality and efficacy standards.  So instead, they divert their energies into shrewdly promoting their product.

A common marketing tactic is to state the individual ingredient in the supplement, and then explain how it benefits the horse.  From here, the supplement company can either directly, or indirectly, lead you into believing your horse may not be getting enough of that specific ingredient.  For example, “A highly concentrated source of amino acids.  Amino acid deficiencies can result in poor growth and development of young horses and poor overall health of adult horses.”  This is a factual statement, however, in practice, protein or amino acid deficiencies are rarely reported, unless the horse is on a sustained diet of poor quality foodstuffs…. in which case, your money would be better invested in good quality forages and feeds that can be measured, and proven, to result in the desired effect!

The fact of the matter is, while we have come a long way in equine nutrition research in the last decade, we have still not elucidated the perfect, ‘balanced’ diet for horses, or arguably any species.  Even if we did, it would vary considerably from horse to horse, depending on a number of physiological, genetic and environmental factors affecting the nutritional demands of the animal, at any given time.  Our best estimates come in the form of scientific publications such as the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements for Horses, but even these are based on recommendations for a broad classification of horses, & are supported by reliable, but largely incomplete, data.

So, supplementing to prevent or treat a problem we don’t really know is, or was going to be, a problem, is not only nonsensical, it’s a complete waste of money.  More importantly, it risks exposing the horse to overfeeding and dietary imbalances, some of which can induce life-threatening conditions, such as obesity & laminitis from excessive energy intake, or sudden death from selenium poisoning.  But, before you start to panic you may be unintentionally killing your horse with supplemental kindness, recent research on several of the leading supplements in the US, revealed they didn’t actually contain enough of anything to be of any use, and thankfully of any detriment to the horse….just your wallet!  However, the serious side of this is, if your horse really does have a genuine nutritional deficiency, it may mean your supplement cannot be relied upon to make up the difference.

Do not dismay!  There is a way to at least begin to work towards the afore mentioned claims of dietary bliss, and more encouragingly, it’s a tried and proven method that’s been around for millions of years.  But first, assimilate this.  The horse has evolved over 55 million years (maybe even more according to recent findings), and still thrives to this day in situations where little or no human intervention is encountered.  Their survival would not have been possible if they were unable to fulfill their nutritional needs.  If the horse had such a precise requirement for a nutritional component, such as Cobalt for example, that he could not get in his normal diet, he would not have made it.  It makes absolutely no evolutionary sense to have such strict demands on nutritional requirements.  So contrary to what we are led to believe, or maybe even want to believe, it turns out your horse is actually pretty good judge of how to get enough of the nutrients he needs to sustain himself (remember he’s been been practicing for millions of years), provided he is in a supportive environment that allows him a varied and free-choice to do so.  Here’s a little insight into his secret to health and longevity (by the way, this is the feed room of my dreams!):

By doing this (eating), in a well maintained pasture with a varied selection of forages and shrubs, for the majority of his day, he not only “improves his disposition and mental stability”, but he also greatly “improves his digestion”, “supports his joint health”, overall he will be in much “better general health”, and will therefore more likely to ‘perform’ better…if only he is managed, and fed, like a horse.  It really can be that simple.

Bottom line is SUPPLEMENTS DO NOT MAKE A HEALTHY HORSE HEALTHIER.  It is evident from the escalating incidences of nutrition and management related health problems, our current horse care practices are failing to meet the demands we place upon our domesticated horses.  Quick fix, empty supplement promises will not solve the problem, in fact, they may not even help us alleviate the symptoms, and may make matter’s worse.

Break your unproven and unnecessary supplement addiction, the shelves will look bare…but it will be liberating!  Think of how much easier feed time will be and all that extra time you will have to ride!  Your horse, your wallet (and spouse), and me personally, will thank you!  Start with the fundamental basics, i.e. forage, and supplement only where necessary.  Invest your time into gaining unbiased,  informed knowledge of economical, practical, and sustainable nutritional and management methods that WILL benefit the health and welfare of your horse; your returns will far exceed those of any self-proclaimed, ‘proprietary’ concoction.  In the meantime, I will continue to digest and eliminate my feed room nightmares a bucket at a time, in the hope my dreams will become somewhat absorbed into reality.

If you do suspect your feeding and management regime may not be meeting the needs of your horse, or you just want piece of mind you’re on the right track, consult an independent, qualified equine nutrition professional.  They can discuss with you your individual concerns, and tailor a program suitable for you and your horse.

(Thank you to Dr David Ramey who always helps to provide a common sense, no-nonsense approach to all matters equine)

20 June 2012 Equine Dentists – The tooth of the matter

Equine dental care is not a new health care craze, in fact in the UK, records of filing horse teeth date back to the 1600’s.  Commonly know as ‘floating’, (or ‘rasping’ if you’re from the other side of the pond), it literally means to ‘make level and smooth’.  Over the years, everyone appears to have tried their hand at teeth floating; the farrier, blacksmith, veterinarian and even the horse owner himself, but over the last 20 years, there has been an increasing presence of a new ‘expert’ called the ‘equine dentist’, who may just not be what they proclaim to be.

Why do we float a horse’s teeth?

Similar to humans, horses have baby teeth that are replaced by adult teeth, however, the horse’s teeth have very long roots that continue to erupt, or push out, throughout their life, until they eventually lose them, or the horse dies.  This eruption is at a rate of about 2-6 millimeters a year (about 1/16 to ¼ inch for those who prefer the complicated way of measuring things), i.e. not very fast.  While youngsters usually require bi-annual oral examinations, and older horses may require more frequent visits to address a specific problem, once a year routine float will usually suffice for most horses.

Horses spend a lot of time chewing, pretty much 60-70% of their day given the choice.  However, because their teeth do not lie flat, the upper teeth hang over the cheek side of the lower teeth, this can create uneven wear and extremely sharp points contacting both the sensitive areas of the cheek & tongue, these are the areas that commonly require smoothing out.  The actual grinding surface of the tooth is very rough and rumpled and should be left alone to do the job over 55 million years of evolution has been working on, unless there is a specific malocclusion problem such as hooks, ramps, wave mouth or step mouth.

What does it take to be an ‘equine dentist’?

In the human world, the majority of dental students have at least a Bachelor’s degree prior to embarking upon 4 years of dental school, and undergraduate studies are usually in biology, chemistry, anatomy, chemistry & microbiology.  Upon graduation, the title of Doctor of Dental Science (DDS) or Dental Medical Doctor (DMD) is bestowed upon the graduate, who is then licensed, regulated, and eligible to be insured to carry out dental procedures on human patients.

In direct contrast, there are no such requirements in the equine dental world: no training, expertise, licensure, insurance, or regulation necessary to bestow upon yourself the title of ‘equine dentist.’  In fact, some ‘equine dentists’ start their professions after only a two-weekend course, some have even less than that, and while a little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing, add in some specialist motorized equipment to the mix and you have a potential for disaster on your hands…or in your horse’s mouth.

In the USA, the laws governing equine dentistry are ‘consistently inconsistent’, and vary from state to state.  However, it is universally accepted that Non-Veterinarian Dental Lay Practitioners (NVDLP’s) or lay dentists, are not ‘dentists’, despite the variety of methods they employ to market their self-proclaimed and delusive expertise.  They can be brazenly found listed under ‘equine dentists’ or ‘equine dental technicians’, but many do not even have a college degree, and most definitely not in equine dentistry, because no such qualification exists.  They may be graduates of an “ABC Institute of Equine Dentistry”, or “XYZ School of Equine Dentistry”, that implies they have some kind of license or formal education, but in fact, the topics taught in such establishments are unregulated, vary widely, and no regulatory agency, worldwide, recognizes qualifications from such schools.  Moreover, several of these courses are taught by people who have been convicted of practicing veterinary medicine without a license.  Equine dentists may attest to ‘experience in the horse industry’, they may even be a ‘second generation horse dentist’, or you may even be fortunate enough to find one that is ‘world renowned’ or ‘world traveled’, but bottom line is, a lay dentist may have any degree of training, or even none at all.  As they are not held accountable to the licensing standards of a profession, you are exposing your horse to unknown risks and potentially life threatening procedures, with little or no recourse.

In some states lay dentists are legal, however, they are only allowed to use hand floats unless otherwise supervised by a veterinarian.  However, it is still ILLEGAL for them to administer sedation or anesthesia to your horse: some carry on irrespective of this, others avoid the issue by promoting “gentle” and/or “natural horsemanship” as a beneficial alternative …would you consider a tooth extraction without the benefit of anesthesia, no matter how nicely you dentist whispered in your ear?  More often than not, the job that gets done by is either a minimalist ‘sale barn special’, or even worse for the horse, teeth are aggressively ground to smooth ‘chicklet-like’ tablets, significantly decreasing their functional role in digestibility, and potentially causing permanent damage.

Things can, and often do, go wrong with routine dental procedures.  Such complications may include soft tissue damage that can lead to infections in the tissue or blood stream, and over zealous grinding of malocclusions, placing bit seats, and shaping canine teeth, can expose the delicate and sensitive pulp cavity leading to tooth decay and eventual loss.  Moreover, several horses have died as a result of bone infections resulting from such procedures.  As the horse cannot speak for himself: he remains the ultimate victim and silently suffers the negligence and incompetence inflicted at the hands of unregulated laypeople.  The well-meaning horse owner is not only duped out of hard earned cash, but is left believing they have provided the best in dental care for their equine partner.

 Who should provide my horse’s dental care?

There are professionals who are licensed and trained to perform dentistry on your horse and they go by the title of ‘veterinarian’.  While veterinary medicine has received justified bad press in the past due to short falls in the dentistry curriculum and the availability of continuing education, there have been rapid improvements made in the past few years.  Veterinary equine dentistry now has advanced diagnostic aids, and a better understanding of equine dental anatomy, physiology and pathology.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), and State Practice Acts define dentistry as veterinary medicine.  So, in addition to a licensed veterinarian, who can legally carry out dental work on your horse in Georgia?  Basically, “a veterinary technician working under the direction, supervision and control of a duly licensed veterinarian may provide the following animal patient care under direct supervision:  dental procedures including, not limited to the removal of calculus, soft deposits, plaque and stains; the smoothing, filing and polishing of teeth; or the flotation or dressing of equine teeth; dental extraction not requiring sectioning of the tooth or resectioning of bone.”  What this means in practice is that if you choose to employ a lay dentist over a licensed veterinarian, and/or supervised veterinary technician, to perform dental procedures on your horse, not only is this practice illegal, but it also means you have absolutely no recourse in the event of a problem.  Have you ever considered that if your horse suffers at the hands of an unsupervised lay dentist, your equine insurance company is not obligated to pay for any claims that may arise from such cases of malpractice?

It is not uncommon for horse owners to request that their regular attending veterinarian sedate their horse for the lay dentist to perform dental work.  This opens up a complex issue of “who is responsible for what when it comes to working in the equine mouth, and who is responsible should your horse be inappropriately or inaccurately diagnosed, medicated or treated?”  Are you, the horse owner, responsible should something go wrong? Would the lay dentist be responsible? Would your regular veterinarian be responsible if your horse develops complications from a procedure performed by a lay dentist?  As the choice is yours to make, you are ultimately responsible for the health and well-being of your horse: be aware of the rules and regulations that surround equine dental care in your state, and arm yourself with the knowledge of whom represents a legitimate, trained & regulated equine dental professional.

What should I look for in a good equine veterinary dentist?

If your regular attending veterinarian does not provide comprehensive equine dental care, and many do not, request that they refer you to a colleague that does, we are very fortunate to have several good equine veterinary dentists in our area.  Here are a few questions you should consider when looking for good equine dental care.

1)         Are they looking at what they are doing?

They should be using a surgical grade light (head or speculum mounted, not a flashlight), a padded stand or dental halter, a full mouth speculum, and a veterinary assistant to steady the head.  Dentistry is not something that should be done blindly and by ‘feel’ alone.

2)         Is everything clean and sanitary?

ALL dental instruments should be cleaned and washed with surgical scrub between EACH horse…no exceptions!

3)         Are they fully equipped to do the job?

If they turn up armed with a single hand float and bolt cutters, this is not a good sign! Good technical instrumentation is vital to do a thorough job, both motorized and non-motorized.  In fact recent studies have shown motorized floats produce less reactive horses, which has important implications for human safety and horse welfare.

4)         Do they do a thorough examination and keep good records?

Your vet should carry out a complete visual examination, and be more than prepared to show you their findings and explain the work that needs to be performed.  Did they ask/do they know the status of your horse’s vaccinations? For dental procedures, is it recommended your horse be current on Tetanus and Rabies for his own health, and the health and safety of you, your veterinarian, and technician.

5)         Do they recommend sedation & anesthesia?

The veterinarian will have a selection of drugs available to make your horse more comfortable and relaxed.  Not only does this contribute to a less stressful experience for your horse and allows the veterinarian to perform a more thorough job, it also enhances the safety aspect of performing such tasks in such a vulnerable position. i.e. right in front of the horse’s front feet!  Not only this, if in the event of an adverse drug reaction (this does not happen often, but it can be a dangerous and life threatening situation) the veterinarian will be trained and prepared to deal with such an event, the event will be recorded in the patient health chart, and that drug can be avoided for future procedures requiring sedation.

6)         Do they have diagnostic imaging?

Imaging equipment, such as x-rays, can be vital for uncovering and managing a number of equine dental abnormalities.

7)         Do they adhere to sterile technique?

Being in a barn is no excuse for poor surgical technique!  When any invasive procedure, such as wolf tooth extraction, is performed, it should be done with sterile instruments using sterile technique.

Don’t just brush it off!

So as a responsible horse owner, when you ask yourself “who should provide my horse’s dental care?” remember that you and your horse are the ultimate consumers, and are therefore the ones at risk.  The health and welfare of your horse is YOUR responsibility: ask questions, seek qualified, unbiased professional advice, and always be wary of ‘certified’ non-veterinarian experts…they are at best practicing medicine illegally, and many are no more than traveling con artists.

In The Arena

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ABC Radio
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