Texas Veterinarians Want a Cut of Horse Dentists’ Profits

Three cheers for horse dentists in Texas and the Institute of Justice (IJ) which took up their defense. After three years, IJ and the horse dentists (aka “floaters”) won their legal battle with the board of Veterinary Medical Examiners in the state, which attempted to put a halt to the specialized business of equine dentistry — unless they could get in on the profit.

Veterinarians claimed that horse dentists, since they are not licensed veterinarians, should not be allowed to operate on horses without the direct supervision of a licensed vet. While floaters won this time, the fight is far from over. Vets claim that they are only worried about horse safety that “unskilled floaters will damage the horse’s gums or strip away protective enamel,” but this is really about elitism and the protection of profits from competition. Vets are angry that floaters can bypass their licensing regime and their would-be monopoly on the animal welfare industry.

Full disclosure: my father is an equine dental technician. That gives me some bias, but also a little insight to say that the claim that equine dentists are “unskilled” is total bunk.

As this article in The Wall Street Journal puts it:

Horse-teeth floating is a lucrative job. Some practitioners say they can make $300,000 a year, and those who do say it’s straightforward and requires no special training.

There are few equine dentists with “no specialized training.” Simply working around horses requires a specialized set of skills, often acquired over years of interacting with the animals-a skill set that few veterinarians have. Equine dentists, like farriers (the guys who shoe horses) often come from families who have many generation involved in the trade. Parents pass along the skills of the craft to their children; they may not have a veterinary license, but they certainly aren’t unskilled. For those would-be floaters not born into equine families, like my father, there are schools which train hopefuls in things like equine anatomy, immunology, restraint techniques, equine nutrition, tooth extraction, bacteriology, while giving them in-field training and apprenticeships with certified equine dental technician.

It’s unlikely that any horse owner would choose an “unskilled” floater in a town with other certified equine dental technicians competing for their business. In very rural towns there may not be competition, but even then an untrained (meaning unlicensed, not necessarily inexperienced) floater will probably be more savvy around horses than any licensed veterinarian. An unlicensed floater is better than no floater at all.

As my colleague Ryan Young put it in his blog on the topic:

As horses age, their teeth often wear down into points. This can cause the animals great pain if they bite into their tongue or cheeks. Chewing can also become problematic. A horse floater’s job is to keep that from happening. They are a kind of equine dental specialist. Floaters anesthetize the animal then grind its teeth into smoother shapes.

Unattended dental problems can lead to sharp teeth. The sharp teeth can make equipment used in riding painful, it also makes eating painful and awkward which could result in malnutrition,  starvation, and death.

If veterinarians really cared about horses they would want more floaters in the market — not less.

Image credit: Coach Ronny’s flickr photostream.