Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Whatever Floats Your Teeth...

By C.J. Hirschfield

Amy Blake was due to have her baby in just a few days, but that didn’t keep her from coming to Children’s Fairyland to see our equines – two donkeys and one miniature horse – having their teeth filed. “Of course I said yes!” she said.

And that is how last Wednesday, the extremely pregnant Amy – who is a dentist for humans, and is married to Fairyland’s facilities manager, Nick Mitchell – found herself observing the work of Billy Liskey, equine dental technician. He was happy to have the company because, he said, he likes to explain his job—and to show off the $30,000 in equipment he’s invested in his practice.

Dental technician Billy Laskey works on our donkey Gideon's teeth.

Billy, who is 27, has been around horses all his life. His father has been a farrier (a specialist in equine hoof care) for 50 years, doing much of his work at Bay Area racetracks. Billy used to ride bulls in rodeos before he attended the Academy of Equine Dentistry in Idaho for his certificate. His studies are ongoing; he’ll be going back to the school next month, where he may dissect equine heads or learn about interesting cases from around the country. His job takes him to Hawaii twice a year to work on island horses; four years ago one of “his” horses competed in the Kentucky Derby.

Amy has been a dentist for a year and a half, splitting her time between a community health center and a private practice in Oakland. She describes herself as a curious person, and she knew she’d learn a thing or two from observing our animals getting their teeth tended to.

Unlike human teeth, equine teeth continue to grow throughout most of the animals’ lives. In the wild, teeth get worn down because equines spend up to 18 hours a day feeding. In captivity, their food is handed to them, so the teeth don’t get worn down enough to ensure that the chewing surface remains flat or smooth. Also, sharp edges and points to the teeth can develop, resulting in pain and failure to eat properly.

That’s why it’s generally accepted that equines need to be checked at least once a year to see whether their teeth need to be “floated” – filed to make their teeth relatively smooth. (The file or rasp that’s used is called a float.)

Amy Blake (left) and Fairyland animal caretaker Maura McMichael watch Billy Laskey work on Gideon.

Billy has observed amazing changes in equines after he’s floated their teeth. For example, a horse that was 500 pounds underweight rapidly regained the weight after its mouth felt better. Owners have told him that their horses’ personalities change for the better—that they carry their heads differently and run and turn more effectively.

After Fairyland’s vet administered medication to calm the animals, the equine and human dental experts had a chance to learn from each other. Out came the dental halter, speculum, diamond-coated power tools, hand float and a specially made headlamp. The whole process took about 40 minutes per animal.

“I’m amazed at how animals have teeth that are adapted for different purposes,” Amy said. Understandably, she was surprised at how big the equine instruments are, given how “tiny and precise” her own tools are.

Unlike her human patients, equines don’t suffer from tooth decay. “Most of the problems humans deal with are a product of our modern world and the foods we eat,” she pointed out. She was impressed with Billy’s high level of skill and the fact that he has to be an expert on a number of species.

Billy enjoyed comparing notes with Amy, too. They discussed the fact that the tooth-numbering system is different for humans and equines. And they really sank their teeth into the topic of malocclusion (the abnormal alignment of upper and lower teeth). Turns out it’s a big deal in all species.

Amy was glad that her baby didn’t decide to make his appearance early, and that she got the chance to observe equine dentistry up close. “I learned a lot, and it was pretty cool,” she said. But she appreciates the fact that the photos we shot didn’t feature extreme close-ups of the entire process.  

“Showing all of the large instruments would scare people,” she noted. But for her, it’s clearly a treat to look at any horse – gift or not—in the mouth.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.

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