Texas veterinarians author legislation to bridle lay dentists

Judge's order prompts end to regulatory crackdown on unlicensed teeth floating

Published: December 03, 2010
By Jennifer Fiala

Legislation in Texas that puts parameters on those who float equine teeth without a license to practice veterinary medicine is in the works and expected to be filed in the coming weeks.

Officials with the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA), which authored the measure, note that the bill rests with an unnamed senator while its language is being reviewed prior to its introduction. The state Legislature convenes on Jan. 11.

In its raw state, the bill permits lay dentists to float equine teeth provided they perform the service under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian, meet specific educational requirements, complete continuing education and apply for licensure with the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (TBVME).

It grandfathers longtime floaters found to exhibit the skills and knowledge mandated.

The TVMA’s initiative is the latest in an ongoing battle between lay dentists who insist that floating teeth falls below the practice of veterinary care and many in the profession who believe performing such procedures should require a veterinary license. Across the country, lay dentists have operated for decades without attracting much attention. The traditional process involves the use of a hand file called a float to smooth or contour equine molars.

Many supporters of lay floating, including some veterinarians, believe that rasping the points off a horse’s teeth should not constitute the practice of veterinary medicine. The procedure is performed routinely on horses with soft diets that do not wear the teeth naturally.

But the advent of motorized tools such as electric drills have brought with them a need to sedate animals using drugs that require a medical license to purchase and prescribe. Sedation by those without a medical license is illegal in Texas and other states, though some lay floaters admit to acquiring the drugs and using them anyway.

In addition, proper oral exams now are the standard of care when performing dental work, which also requires sedation, says Dewey Helmcamp III, a lawyer and TBVME executive director.

That has prompted state regulators to get aggressive. In 2007, the TBVME began ordering lay dentists to stop floating teeth or work under the supervision of a veterinarian. Critics of those who float teeth without a license contend that without medical and pharmaceutical knowledge, the job can be dangerous. According to Helmcamp, a horse once fell, broke its leg and had to be euthanized while in the care of a lay dentist who did not sedate the animal before attempting to float its teeth. While horse owners have turned in a handful of complaints against lay dentists to the TBVME, no equine dentistry-related complaints have been filed against veterinarians in the state.

Apart from issuing cease and desist orders, there isn’t much regulators can do to curb the practice of lay dentists because they do not have licenses at risk with the board.

Another hurdle in the board's quest to take lay dentistry to task: On Nov. 9, Texas District Court Judge Orlinda Naranjo ordered regulators to end the crackdown, at least temporarily.

Naranjo determined that regulators did not adhere to a state-mandated rules-making process prior to its efforts to bridle lay dentistry in the state. Her ruling came per a request for summary judgment in Mitz v. Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners — filed on behalf of lay dentist Carl Mitz and litigated by civil rights firm Institute for Justice.

In addition to the procedural snag, the lawsuit claimed that attempts by the board to control unlicensed teeth floating violated the state’s constitution by prohibiting lay dentists from earning a living. The judge dismissed that claim that along with the plaintiff’s request for attorney’s fees. 

Helmcamp says the board plans to amend the state's veterinary practice act by devising a new rule against unlicensed dentistry, specifically teeth floating, which will be sent through the proper channels to be adopted. That means posting it for public notice in the Texas Register and allowing 30 days for comment.

The comments must be considered by the board, in writing, and there could be a public hearing. Helmcamp expects that the board's six veterinarians and three public members will consider language for a new rule at their Dec. 13 meeting in Austin. This version could be similar to one proposed in September, which after inciting public controversy was remanded to officials for revision.

As for the court decision, Helmcamp suspects the board will not appeal it. “We're just continuing to march right along and get on about our business and see what happens. The earliest we could adopt a new rule, if that happens, is March 2011.”

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