The turf war between veterinarians and lay equine dentists rages on.

The battle line is clear: who should be allowed to float teeth--the removal of sharp enamel points from the surfaces of a horse’s teeth that cause discomfort and can adversely affect the animal’s health--a duly licensed veterinarian or a non-licensed practitioner? Veterinarians argue that equine dentistry is a branch of veterinary medicine that should be limited to licensed practitioners; lay tooth floaters counter that competent tooth floating is a skill that doesn’t require four years of expensive veterinary school and that they provide a valuable service to horse owners at a reasonable cost.

The most recent skirmish, in a Missouri courtroom, went to the veterinarians.

Letter of the Law

The first shot was a complaint to the Missouri Veterinary Medical Board alleging that Brooke Gray was floating teeth for pay without benefit of either a veterinary degree or state license. The Board sent a couple of cease-and-desist letters to no effect, and then went to court seeking an injunction against Gray and her tooth floating practice.

The state veterinary practice act in Missouri includes "dentistry" as a branch of veterinary medicine requiring a license, and Clinton County Circuit Judge Thomas Chapman agreed:

"Veterinary dentistry consists of five disciplines, one of which is orthodontics. Tooth floating is one of many procedures classified as orthodontics in veterinary dentistry. Enamel is part of the horse’s tooth structure. Its manipulation necessarily entails dentistry. Improper teeth floating can result in harm to the horse."

Judger Chapman’s conclusion: floating a horse’s teeth, by statutory definition, is veterinary medicine, which by law requires a state license.

Gray raised several affirmative defenses. She claimed that the state licensing requirements violated her Constitutional right to earn a living through her chosen vocation as a tooth floater, that the regulations violated the guarantee of freedom of speech because it limited her ability to talk about equine dentistry with her clients, and that the Veterinary Medical Board improperly singled out tooth floating for legal action while ignoring castration, branding, or dehorning.

Her arguments failed, and an injunction prohibiting Gray from floating teeth without a license was granted.

Burden of Proof

Two things stand out in the court’s decision.

First, while the court acknowledged that a purpose of the licensing requirement is promoting "sound animal husbandry," the case turned solely on two somewhat different questions: whether there was a rational basis for including tooth floating in the definition of veterinary medicine (the judge said that there was such a basis) and whether Gray had the necessary state license (she did not). To win, the Missouri Veterinary Medical Board only had to prove that tooth floating required a license and that Gray did not have one. The decision did not address Gray’s competence or lack thereof, or the question of whether Gray’s non-licensed practice was actually harming the public or the public’s horses.

Second, the court did not reach any conclusions, pro or con, about the state licensing scheme:

"This may not be the best way to ensure sound, affordable animal dentistry," Judge Chapman wrote, "but it is one way to ensure that those practicing equine dentistry have some degree of skill. The Court is not empowered to determine what would be the best statutory scheme to regulate equine dentistry. That is the province of the legislature." Courts should interpret and apply existing laws, not make new ones.

Gray’s attorney was quoted as saying that an appeal would be filed.

Where do you stand on the issue? Should legal tooth floating require a veterinary degree and a state license, or is specialized training and on-the-job experience good enough?