Dental Exams and Disease Spread: Is Your Horse Safe?
Equine dentistry has evolved immensely over the past 20 years. Rather than simply rasping sharp points and removing diseased cheek teeth, veterinarians now do full oral examinations and offer preventive care using state-of-the-art equipment, as well as perform intricate procedures to manage diseased teeth and gums. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the up-close-and-personal aspect where veterinarians are elbow-deep in the action, exposed head to toe to the horse’s oral and nasal secretions. Those secretions could contain infectious agents, such as bacteria and viruses, that he or she can easily spread from horse to horse.

“Veterinarians often examine and treat multiple horses on a farm on the same day, and the same veterinarian may offer dental care at more than one facility on that day,” said Nicola Pusterla, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, AVDC-Equine, professor of equine internal medicine and dentistry at the University of California, Davis, Department of Veterinary Medicine and Epidemiology. “Their equipment is usually shared between horses, representing the perfect platform for disease transmission.”

One recent survey cited by Pusterla found almost 84% of veterinarians reported not using personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves or washing/sanitizing their hands between patients.

Pusterla said apparently healthy horses can be shedding infectious disease pathogens in their nasal secretions, putting other horses at risk if veterinarians don’t respect proper biosecurity protocols.

Proving this point, Pusterla and colleagues recently collected data from 579 horses undergoing routine dental procedures. Of those apparently healthy horses, 22% tested positive to a true respiratory pathogen, including equine herpesvirus-1 and -4, equine influenza virus, equine rhinitis virus B, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

“These infectious diseases can spread rapidly through susceptible equine populations, causing disease, loss of use and movement of horses due to quarantine, and economic losses,” Pusterla said. “Further, some of these respiratory pathogens, such as MRSA, may have human health implications.”

While Pusterla acknowledged that biosecurity protocols are “time-consuming and inconvenient,” he attested that it should be the expectation, not exception, for veterinarians to take “all possible measures to reduce the spread of respiratory pathogens.”

Steps he suggested veterinarians take with every horse during dental procedures include:

  • Conducting a full physical examination, including taking rectal temperature, on all horses scheduled for a dental procedure to weed out unhealthy horses;
  • Wearing gloves and washing hands thoroughly between each patient; and
  • Cleaning and disinfecting equipment between each patient.

Failing to adhere to these practices and principles can have serious consequences. Pusterla’s study, “Investigation of the shedding of selected respiratory pathogens in healthy horses presented for routine dental care,” was published as an online first issue of the Journal of Veterinary Dentistry. Coauthors were Molly Rice and Travis Henry.