Healthy Teeth, Happy Horse
Dr. Diane Febles invests the time to ensure her equine patients leave her clinic with healthier teeth and pain-free.
Twenty-two years ago, Veterinary Equine Dentistry (McDonough, Georgia) owner Diane Febles, DVM, CVA, suspected traditional equine dental care might be limited in its scope. A practice owner since 1988, she was convinced the type of dentistry she learned in veterinary school – not sedating patients and addressing only the most critical issues – had run its course. “I knew there had to be a better way,” she said, and she returned to the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Veterinary Medicine to pursue an intensive course taught by a board-certified dental practitioner. “What began as a step to improve my practice soon became my primary focus.”
Passionate from the beginning
An animal lover for as long as she can remember, Dr. Febles began horseback riding lessons when she was 6 years old and resolved to become an equine veterinarian when she turned 14. She even contacted Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine about admissions requirements to ensure she pursued the appropriate classwork in high school and college. At 16, she began her first summertime job at a small veterinary clinic, shadowing an equine veterinarian.
Dr. Febles received a B.S. from Cornell University, followed by a DVM from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. “Upon graduation, I worked at a small animal emergency clinic for three years while my fiancé and I began a mixed-animal practice in Ellenwood, Georgia.” Although she found the work very satisfying, her focus had always been an equine practice. After she began the intensive coursework at UGA in 2000, her practice shifted to focus solely on equine dentistry. As it was, the move suited her both professionally and personally. “At the time, I was a single parent of four children under the age of eight, and I was struggling to balance my general equine practice with my family commitments,” she said. “By focusing on dentistry only, which is appointment-based, I could still be a full-time mom. Plus, I loved the immediate gratification of being able to change a horse’s life for the better.”
In fact, Dr. Febles discovered “a whole new world.” Following her advanced training at UGA, she spent time with experts at the American Academy of Equine Dentistry, pursued multiple other educational opportunities, and shadowed experienced dental equine veterinarians whenever possible. “I even paid a practitioner to come to Georgia and work with me so that I could improve my technique,” she said. Her efforts paid off: “At first, I treated five to 10 horses each week. Since then, my practice has grown; I currently work on 200 horses and perform approximately 25 major extractions every month. I do a lot of referral work for equine practitioners from around the state of Georgia.”
Advances in technology – particularly wireless digital radiography – have made it much more feasible to work with other veterinarians, she noted. “Digital radiography, and the ability to take multiple views from different angles, has been a game changer,” she said. “Having multiple views from different angles ensures we know exactly what we are looking at and makes it so much easier to consult with other practitioners. Better information means better treatment plans. The horse wins every time!”
Greater awareness, better care
For the most part, Dr. Febles works with performance horses, including dressage, hunter-jumpers, eventers and barrel racers. “Improving these horses’ ability to flex and bend without pain changes whether or not they’ll win their competition,” she said. “I work for many trainers who recognize the association between excellent dental work and how well the horse responds under the saddle.”
Dr. Febles also focuses on pain relief, including fractured or diseased teeth that require extraction. “While many horses experience weight loss or show other signs of pain, in general, they are prey animals and often try to hide their pain,” she said. “Often, a horse appears to feel so much better after a procedure, and the owner realizes they missed the signs of pain. That’s why annual oral exams are so important.
“When horses have good dental care from a young age, we can eliminate many problems that often lead to extractions,” she continued. “Correct balancing of the mouth creates even wear patterns on the teeth, resulting in fewer fractures and less disease as the horse ages. A 30-year-old that has all of its teeth is much healthier than a 20-year-old that is missing multiple molars and has limited ability to chew.”
The good news is that over the past 15 years, owners have begun to understand that when horses are pain-free, they will work and perform better. “Owners today are willing to look for solutions to improving their horse’s health,” she said. They recognize that the old method – using a stronger bit and pressing the horse to work through its pain – simply isn’t in the best interest of the horse. “Instead, they are taking time to understand the pain and discomfort that may be preventing their horse from performing to its highest level.” At one point, Dr. Febles received training and certification in acupuncture and added that service to her practice. But, after ten years, as her practice added more and more dental patients, she was forced to stop. “Even though my dental practice has become too busy for me to do much acupuncture, I still find it to be an incredibly effective diagnostic tool that helps improve horses’ performance,” she said.
In general, horse owners today are much more in tune with their horse’s well-being than they once were, according to Dr. Febles. They are more apt to notice problems and look for solutions to address them than they were 10 or 15 years ago, she said. “Since bodywork has become a common modality for our equine athletes, more dental issues are being noticed. Dental issues affect the entire body, and many animal chiropractors and bodyworkers bring these issues to the owner’s attention. Trainers today are also more informed.
“Horses live, work, and perform much longer than they once did,” she continued. “Twenty-four has become the new 15! With a speculum and a bright light, owners can visualize dental issues affecting their horse’s health. As owners better understand the impact of pain on their horse’s well-being and performance, they appreciate the need for good routine dental care.”
A good balance
As far as Dr. Febles is concerned, her practice is at a perfect point. “I have excellent clients and a great work-life balance,” she said. “I don’t think it can get much better than this.” Apart from a few unexpected extractions each month, her schedule remains relatively predictable. Since she manages patients throughout the state of Georgia, as well as in parts of Tennessee and Alabama, there’s a good amount of travel time. But, with the help of her full-time technician, Donna Shelnutt, her days routinely begin at 7:30 a.m. and wrap up between 7-9 p.m.
“Maintaining a good work-life balance has been important to me since I began my practice in 1988,” she said, noting that she’s seen plenty of colleagues who have not set good work boundaries and eventually have burned out and chosen to leave the industry. “I am careful to separate my professional time from my private time. There’s a saying: ‘Work hard, play hard.’ When I’m working, I’m 100% committed to my patients. And when I’m off, it’s my time to focus on my family, my own animals (four horses, two dogs, and two cats), and my travel.” Indeed, long weekends or even a week’s vacation are as important as her career, she said. “I make no apologies for enjoying life!”