Nov 08, 2012

Why the Long Face? Horses Need Dentists, Too

Carl Mitz

Equine dentist Carl Mitz is based in Texas but plies his trade across the country. Photo by Jillian Bliss.


By Jillian Bliss
For Reporting Texas

NEW BRAUNFELS — Carl Mitz fastens a metal bridle called a speculum to his patient’s mouth so he can check the animal’s teeth without worry of being bitten. Soon the whir of his drill competes with the sounds of the stable — horses nickering, chickens clucking, a rake mucking out a stall.

Such is the routine of a Texas horse dentist, and on a September morning at Goodsell Miniatures in New Braunfels, Mitz showed off the differences between his work and that of a human dentist. For one thing, his is dirtier — go figure. For another, most common procedures are performed outdoors or in a stable while the patient stands on all fours rather than reclining in a dental chair.

Mitz says he enjoys being in demand. He flies or drives around the state and nation, he says, depending on “where I’m going and how many stops. I have horses brought to my ranch sometimes, too–no big facility. I just do the work in the driveway by the house.”

According to the International Association of Equine Dentistry, Mitz is one of about 50 equine dentists in Texas who ply their trade, which can produce a six-figure incomes, without a veterinarian’s degree. In 2007, that livelihood was jeopardized by a state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners’ ruling that added dentistry to the list of procedures reserved for licensed veterinarians. The board, which regulates veterinary practice in Texas, represents some 2,000 licensed equine vets.

Mitz and his colleagues put up a fight. In 2011, House Bill 414 became law, giving them the right to practice without a veterinary license. A program created by the law licenses horse dentists separately from horse vets. “I’m license number 008,” Mitz says. “This just makes sure the horse has a qualified provider, and that’s not a terrible thing. It makes sure the horses are protected and so are the owners.”

Equine dentists perform some of the same procedures –teeth-pulling and mouth-straightening, for example — as human dentists. They also do work particular to horses, like tooth floating, periodic filing that trims off potentially harmful tooth growth. If their teeth are left unfiled, horses face difficulty in chewing that could result in death. Mitz floats about 3,000 horse mouths per year.

“A horse’s teeth aren’t sensitive,” Mitz says. “They have a nerve and a blood supply, but they’re not sensitive. You don’t get close enough when you’re filing to get to the part where they are.”

Mitz learned his trade in an eight-week apprenticeship with the man who treated the dental needs of his father’s quarter horses in Michigan 27 years ago. As part of his training, he treated 25 thoroughbred race horses daily for three weeks in Lexington, Ky. Mitz later practiced in Michigan and Ohio before coming to Texas 11 years ago.

Clark Neily, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that helps small businesses oppose governmental restrictions, helped Mitz win the fight against the board. Neily says he and his colleagues won their case by proving the board violated its own rules by when it ruled that horse dentists had to have equine vet licenses.

“From my perspective, this was all about turf protection,” Neily says. “I don’t think the vets wanted to do the dentistry themselves, I think they wanted a cut of the action and a portion of the fee.” Veterinary board members say they were trying to protect horses and that veterinarians were the only specialists capable of doing the job correctly.

Whatever the motivation, individuals wanting to work as equine dentists must now pass an exam given by the equine dentistry association before qualifying for a Texas license. Dentists like Mitz, who were in practice prior to the new requirements, were able to get licenses without taking the exam.

“There used to be a lot of bad feelings between vets and dentists because they didn’t understand each other and they didn’t want to get along,” says Josh Wallace, director of the U.S. office of the association, which is headquartered in Seguin. “Here [in the international association], everybody wants to get along.”

Mitz travels the nation with his equipment by truck or plane, working on horses from New York to California with about $40,000 in tools, ranging from typical tools like picks and forceps to speculums, which keep horses’ mouths open. Mitz has also provided research assistance to Kansas-based Capps Manufacturing Inc., the largest manufacturer of horse dentistry equipment, for 10 years.

Mitz has specialties to his credit as well. He works on deformities such as wry nose, the equine equivalent of a deviated septum. Although Mitz originally learned dentistry on tall thoroughbreds, his practice now focuses on miniature horses. He says that of the 81 wry nose horses he has treated, 79 were miniatures.

“The refined head and face we prefer on our miniatures presents a bit more of a challenge from an equine dental perspective that requires at least an annual dental checkup,” says Dianne Farrell Goodsell, owner of Goodsell Miniatures, who began working with Mitz in 2001. She says she looks forward to Mitz’s trips to her stable.

“He’s a good friend and a man of integrity, always fair in his pricing and willing to take the time to explain the entire process as he goes along to help educate his clients so they can become better owners and caregivers,” she says.

Strange things have happened to Mitz. Owners of one horse called him when they believed the animal had a tumor in its mouth.

“[T]here was actually a hole by its tooth where the horse’s head had filled with feed,” Mitz says. “Their molars are in their sinuses, so if they get a crack in a tooth, the feed goes right in there, and then you have to drill to get it out.”

When the horse later died of natural causes, the owners gave Mitz its skull.