Advice from the expert: Dental problems in small animals

By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut

Many of our small mammal pets can suffer with painful and potentially life threatening dental problems.

Rabbits and rodents (including guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils and degus) have very different teeth to ours. We have a set of ‘baby’ teeth which are replaced by adult teeth that have to last the rest of our lives, but rabbits and rodents only have a single set of teeth which are not replaced but continue to grow. The placement of their teeth is also very different. They have two large incisors at both the top and bottom of the front of their mouth (sometimes with tiny ‘peg’ teeth hiding just behind), which are the large teeth that can be easily seen when they eat or open their mouths, but also two rows of molars at the back of their mouths to grind food. These are impossible to see properly without special equipment so can be difficult to monitor. As a rule, if the front teeth are visibly out of alignment then there will be problems with the molar teeth as the way they eat and hold their jaw will be different.

Dental problems can be identified in several ways. A reduction in the amount they are eating is often noticed first and any slowing down of their eating should lead to an appointment with your vet as soon as possible. If the incisors have overgrown it can be possible to see them either curled round or out of alignment but if the molars are the most seriously affected it can be impossible to tell from just looking at them. Overgrowth of the molars at the back lead to the edges becoming sharp spurs, cutting into the tongue and/or cheeks. In guinea pigs they tend to form a bridge over the tongue, stopping it from moving and making it difficult for them to swallow. Dropping of food, dribbling, or the animal being wet down the front of their chest can often be a sign that there is an issue with the teeth. If the roots of the teeth overgrow then bumps and abscesses in the jaw can occur, but root overgrowth can also begin to push on the tear ducts and cause them to block, leading to discharge around the eyes and tear straining. In severe circumstances, teeth can grow right through the tissues and protrude through lips and cheeks – obviously this is very painful and it should never be left until this point.

To keep your pet’s teeth healthy it is important to look at the factors affecting dental disease. In rabbits, the breed can be important – many lop eared rabbits have been bred to have short, flat faces which can affect the placement and alignment of the teeth. Diet is also a key factor – if the teeth of rabbits and rodents are not worn down, they will continue to grow and become too long, which can lead to many problems. Particularly in rabbits and guinea pigs, a high fibre diet is the best way to aid the normal wear of teeth – hay and grass are very fibrous and should make up 80% of their diet.

Muesli-based diets are also not recommended – they have been repeatedly linked to nutritional imbalances as well as structural problems in dentition. If you suspect your pet has a problem with its teeth it is important you seek veterinary advice immediately – for species such as rabbits and guinea pigs, they can go into gut stasis (a condition where their gut begins to shut down as there is no food passing through it) and smaller species become hypoglycaemic very quickly – both these things are rapidly fatal. Dental work will commonly involve an anaesthetic and the dental work done while they are asleep, but it is important to remember that once this occurs it is likely to be a problem which will happen again – either within a few months or, more commonly, a few weeks. Insurance is always recommended to ensure decisions do not have to be made based on cost alone, but do take care as some policies will not cover dental work and it is your responsibility to be aware of your levels of cover. Aim to ensure regular check-ups with your vet to catch problems early and prevent difficult to manage and painful conditions for your pet.

Emma qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 2008 and works for nutravet (UK) Ltd. She has a BSc in Zoology with Animal Ecology and an MSc in Ecology, helping to fuel her interest in more exotic species. She has a particular love of small furries and has a grade A distinction in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition (CertNut).