Emerging technologies are giving veterinarians the tools they need to best address dental disease in horses
Adult horses possess 36 to 42 teeth in those large, cavernous mouths. Teeth are made of enamel (the outer covering of the tooth) and dentin (mineralized connective tissue)—a unique composition that makes them the strongest substance in the equine body. This toughness, however, doesn’t spare the teeth from fractures, infections, or disorders associated with the periodontal ligament that anchors them into the underlying jaws.
If your horse shows signs of dental pain or difficulty chewing his food, it’s time to ring your veterinarian for an exam. Practitioners often use radiography to diagnose ailments affecting other parts of your horse’s skeletal system (the bones and joints in the legs, for instance), and, likewise, X rays are a popular first step in addressing dental issues. But these days veterinarians have various imaging modalities beyond radiography at their fingertips. Let’s look at the progress they’ve made.
The Evolution of Diagnostic Imaging in Dentistry
Over the course of his 40-year career in equine dentistry, Robert Baratt, DVM, MS, FAVD, Dipl. AVDC, AVDC/EQ, founder of Salem Valley Veterinary Clinic, in Connecticut, has seen and embraced groundbreaking advancements in diagnostic imaging. Today, the modalities and technologies Baratt and his colleagues use are infinitely more elaborate, precise, and user-friendly than those available in the ’80s. It’s literally a black-and-white difference.
“When I graduated veterinary school in 1981, the tools we used to assess the horse’s mouth were limited to a speculum and a penlight,” he says. “Radiographic examination was essentially impossible.”
“And for practitioners who did have access to radiography before its digital form was widely available, the image quality was minimally diagnostic,” adds Leah Limone, DVM, Dipl. AVDC, owner of Northeast Equine Veterinary Dental Services, in Topsfield, Massachusetts.
The first significant evolution in equine dentistry diagnostics was the development of portable digital radiography systems by Fuji in 1981. “Nowadays, using digital radiography, we can capture diagnostic images with great detail, which is critical for the successful diagnosis of a wide range of dental conditions,” explains Limone.
While the cost of such equipment back then was considerable for the average solo equine practitioner, it nonetheless quickly became the standard of care for both dentistry and lameness evaluations, says Baratt. Veterinarians still use digital radiography in just about any case involving the skeleton, teeth included. A digital radiographic image provides a relatively easy, quick, and cost-effective first glance into the bony structures inside the horse.
New Standards of Care
Times have surely changed: Once revolutionary, digital radiography is now considered “basic” and, in many cases, limiting compared to newer, more high-tech three-dimensional imaging modalities. “The increasing availability of computed tomography (CT) scans, for instance, has greatly enhanced our ability to diagnose dental and sinus pathology (disease or damage),” says Baratt. “In the future we will continue to see increased access to standing CT for horses, eliminating the risk of general anesthesia associated with obtaining a CT scan of a 1,200-pound
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