Shutting the gate after the horse has bolted?

If you thought the skills shortage in dentistry was bad, spare a thought for the horses: a deep rift has emerged in the world of equine dentistry due to an absence of regulations and standards surrounding the profession.

A report on the ABC quotes Melbourne University’s Dr Wayne Fitzgerald, who says there is a deep divide between dentists who have veterinary qualifications and those who do not.

“They should be regulated, qualified, and they should be controlled,” he said. There are an estimated 850 horse dentists nationally and the vast majority are veterinarians. But around 50 practitioners without veterinary qualifications are providing horse dentistry nationally.

“Some research estimates that there is up to 1.2 million horses across Australia,” Sue Combridge, Australasian Association for Equine Dentistry president, told the ABC. “The equine dental industry is something that has been serviced primarily through history by the non-veterinarian.”

Both vets and non-vets have been collecting photographic evidence of treatments gone wrong.

“We blame the dental technicians themselves because they do a certain degree of practice, they work in the industry, but unless you are scientifically trained it is very hard to tell if you are doing something right or wrong,” said Dr Fitzgerald.

“They aren’t capable of self-criticising and we hope that veterinarians are.”

Both vets and non-vets are working on a set of national standards that could see all practitioners re-trained.

“There are poor standards of dentistry on both sides of the fence. That is undeniable,” said Ms Combridge. “By implementing national standards for competencies and providing a way for training to become standardised across the country you are going to raise the standard of training.”

But negotiations about the national standards have been bogged down for more than a year. Dr Fitzgerald says veterinarians want non-vets to be prevented from conducting surgery, sedation and drug administration.

“They should be regulated. They should be qualified and they should be controlled and that’s not the case at the moment. They are totally unregulated,” he said.

Non-vets agree there is a need for national standards but they accuse the veterinary profession of delaying negotiations which could contravene the Trade Practices Act.

“It’s not just all about the veterinarians knowing everything there is to know about equine dentistry, or having the final say on animal welfare,” said Ms Combridge.

“There is a strong competition issue to this. There needs to be a serious look at the legislation.”

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