It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. The horse dentist reaches deep inside the mouth of a horse — hoping the horse is OK with that idea — and uses a tool to file down sharp points on the horse’s teeth.
The task keeps the horse healthy, as the sharp edges can poke the horse’s cheek and make it hard for the animal to chew. But done wrong, the horse could resist and bite you. And if you miss a critical spot, a sharp tooth could grow long enough to puncture an artery and the horse could bleed to death.
The process is called floating, and it’s the chosen profession of Brooke Gray, 28, from northwest Missouri. It’s also at the center of a state lawsuit.
The Missouri Veterinary Medical Board filed suit in state court seeking an injunction to stop Gray and her business, B&B Equine Dentistry, based in Holt, from floating horses’ teeth. The board says she is practicing veterinary medicine, specifically dentistry, without a license, presenting “a substantial risk of harm to the health of animals and the interests of people of this state.”
Gray counters that people other than veterinarians have filed horses’ teeth for centuries and the state is keeping her from earning a living, in violation of her constitutional due process rights. She also challenges the state to show that any person or animal has been harmed by her practice. Just across the line in Kansas, she can and does practice without legal hurdles.
Gray grew up on an Iowa ranch and once considered becoming a vet. But after working for one and seeing the long hours he kept, she decided she wanted a job where she worked with animals but still had time for her family.
She said she loves her job and believes abandoning it would harm the animals she treats, adding she’s never had a customer complain about her work.
“It would be a tragedy for the horses I work on if I quit,” she said.
Gray’s attorney is Dave Roland, litigation director of the newly created Freedom Center of Missouri, based in St. Louis. Roland used to work for the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank co-founded by wealthy and influential businessman Rex Sinquefield.
Gray’s answer to the state suit notes that the law in question, R.S.Mo. 340.200.28, speaks to altering an animal’s physical or mental condition. If that’s so, it argues, couldn’t those who shoe horses or brand cattle without being a vet also be breaking the law? And what about dog groomers?
A spokesman for the veterinary board replied in an e-mail that shoeing horses and branding cattle aren’t specifically listed in the law’s definition of veterinary medicine.
But in the government’s reply filed last week, the board said that just because it hasn’t previously sought court action against people who perform those and other animal husbandry tasks, “the Board’s statutory authority to do so is clear” and its inactivity in these areas is no defense for Gray’s conduct.
In her answer to the state’s suit, Gray says tooth floating isn’t part of the core curriculum in most veterinary programs today, and vets who want to treat horses’ teeth typically attend the same kind of program as she did, the Academy of Equine Dentistry in Idaho.
Battles like hers are being waged in other states around the country, as well. In some, state legislatures have carved out exceptions in the law to make room for floaters. In others, people challenged a state board when it began taking floaters to court without changes in the rules or laws governing veterinary medicine.
A judge in Texas this month ruled that state’s veterinary board violated state law when it changed its policy on floating.
The Missouri law has been in place since at least 1992, and both the Attorney General’s Office and Gray said they believe this is the first time the state has sought to enforce the law through an injunction.
So what changed? Travis Ford, a spokesman for the Division of Professional Registration, which includes the veterinary board, said the state has told others to quit acting as veterinarians. They agreed, so formal court action wasn’t required.
The Missouri Veterinary Medical Association has made clear that keeping out people not licensed as veterinarians is a priority. In a 2008-09 legislative update for members, the association discussed how one of its goals was to give the state regulatory board authority to cite and fine those who practice veterinary medicine without a license.
“All of these issues affect your future, the bottom line of your practice, unfair competition from unlicensed individuals, and even your ability to practice veterinary medicine,” the trade group warned its members, discussing fining authority for unlicensed people and other topics.
Dr. Bruce Whittle, of Trenton, chairman of the association’s Equine Committee, said people who hold themselves out as equine dentists generally do much more than smooth over rough parts of horses’ teeth. And even floating, he said, is tough to do without using sedatives, something dangerous for a layperson to try to administer.
Whittle’s passion is equine dentistry, and he learned bit by bit, starting with the basics in veterinary school followed by continuing education programs focused on the topic.
Typically, equine dental programs last two or three weeks, he said, and then people believe they’re equipped to handle things as advanced as extracting teeth.
“If you have to go to school for six months and 1,000 hours and have a license to be a barber, I would think if you want to work on horses’ teeth you’d have to do at least that much,” he said.
Gray says if she sees a serious health problem, she tells the owner to take the horse to a veterinarian for treatment, and that she has a good working relationship with many vets in her area. She has at times had a vet or a horse’s owner sedate an animal before she smoothed down its teeth.
In the suit, the state alleges that Gray injected horses with a sedative or tranquilizer at a center in Kansas City. Citing the litigation, Gray declined to discuss whether she has sedated horses herself.
Gray received a cease and desist letter from the state in 2007 but never heard anything further, so she continued with her business. This spring, a state investigator started following her around, calling her and her clients and showing up at her home and where she was working.
“It was crazy,” she said. “It was scary.”
Whittle said if nonveterinarians want to work as horse teeth floaters there’s a way under current law. They can become licensed as veterinary technicians and then work under the supervision of a veterinarian, so if problems arise, the doctor is available to respond. Also, he said, if a customer has a problem with the animal’s care later, but the floater isn’t licensed, there’s nowhere to lodge a complaint and little potential recourse.
“The procedure in question can cause serious harm to a horse if badly performed by an unqualified person,” said Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office.
Whittle said he’s not threatened by competition from laypeople. “I know the quality of the job I do is good enough that I don’t have to worry about competition from somebody like that,” he said. “The issue is: What is tooth floating, and what is dentistry?”
On the flip side, Gray said she has treated horses whose teeth were filed by an inexperienced vet and has seen the problems an untrained person can cause a horse. Gray also questions if Missouri has enough veterinarians trained in equine dentistry to handle the demand if she and other laypeople are driven out of business.
Whittle said there are enough vets to handle the job. The association keeps a referral list and has about 75 willing vets around Missouri, he said. Only about three counties lack an available vet either in their county or an adjoining one.
Gray said the idea of working as a technician in a vet’s office isn’t appealing because horses are more nervous away from home, and it’s more costly for customers to bring animals to the vet than for her to go to them, especially for those with a herd of horses.
She and her attorney point out that Gov. Jay Nixon recently spoke in northern Missouri about the shortage of veterinarians for large animals such as horses and cows.
Gray said she just wants to be allowed to keep doing what she loves. As her court case proceeds, she’s also working toward a legislative solution. She’ll ask legislators to amend the definition of veterinary medicine to allow people who aren’t veterinarians to float horses’ teeth but won’t request the ability to sedate animals.
“I just want to work,” Gray said. “I just want to help horses and be left alone.”