Many of us have joked about terrible dog breath. That breath usually reminds us to brush our dogs’ teeth or schedule dental cleanings. We might even remember to clean our cats’ teeth, too. But often times, we forget about dental care for our small mammals (including rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, and ferrets…just to name a few). It is important to make dental care part of your exotic animal’s routine care.
Small Mammal Mouth Structure
Most people think that animals like rabbits and guinea pigs only have front teeth since this is all that they can visibly see. This, however, is not true. Small mammals including rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, rats, and chinchillas have not only front incisor teeth but also molars far back in their mouths. These molar teeth are often called “cheek teeth” and are difficult to see without special tools or without sedation. Ferrets are the exception, but more about them in a bit.
Rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas all have open-rooted incisors and cheek teeth. This means that for the life of the pet, these teeth continue to grow. The teeth must be worn down (by chewing or with filing) to prevent overgrowth, abscesses, and discomfort. A rabbit’s front teeth can grow 10-12 inches in just one year. The average lifespan of a rabbit is 6-10 years (depending on the breed), so teeth that aren’t worn down could grow to between 5-10 feet long! Mice and rats also have continuously growing front teeth, but their molars remain the same size throughout their lives.
Proper Diet for chewing
Because small mammals’ teeth are continuously growing, you must provide them with the correct diet for proper chewing. Feed your small mammal a hay-based diet that is high in roughage. The time your pet spends chewing on the hay will help him to wear down his teeth naturally. You can give your pet pellets, fruit, and vegetables as occasional treats, but the primary diet should be roughage. In addition, you can buy chew sticks for mice and rats to help them wear down their teeth.
There are times that a small mammal’s teeth may overgrow and become painful. This problem might be due to an improper diet, genetic factors, or a misalignment of the teeth. Signs of potential dental problems include:
- a decrease in appetite or weight
- drooling, pawing at the mouth or face
- swelling below the jawline or below the eyes
If you catch these symptoms early, you can change your pet’s diet to help allow normal wear to the teeth. Unfortunately, exotic animals are so good at hiding signs of problems, that we rarely notice their dental issues until they are very bad. If that is the case, your pet might need a tooth trimming or filing to help stop the overgrowth of the teeth and to make him more comfortable.
To avoid injuries to the tongue and mouth, we usually anesthetize the pet to trim the teeth properly. In cases of severe tooth overgrowth, we may need to take dental x-rays and perform dental extractions. After such extreme measures, you might need to give your pet pain medications and feed him with a syringe for a while. Be sure to schedule frequent trimmings with your veterinarian to prevent future tooth overgrowth.
Our Friend, the Ferret
Ferrets are one of the few small mammals without continuously growing teeth. Their mouth structure is very similar to that of a dog or cat because ferrets have incisors, canine teeth (fangs), premolars and molars. Like dogs and cats, ferrets tend to get a large amount of dental tartar as they age. Brush your ferret’s teeth. Give them toys and dental treats that encourage chewing to reduce dental tartar. These dental treats can be found at your local pet stores and are made to be nutritionally safe for your ferret. Avoid rubber toys, as ferrets may ingest the rubber causing an intestinal blockage.
Preventive Dental Care is the Key
Remember, the way to stop dental problems is to prevent them. Give your small mammal a diet high in roughage, chew toys, and proper dental care. We might not joke about terrible rabbit breath, but dental care is important for all your furry friends, not just dogs and cats!
Dr. Aili Heintz is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, WI. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign. Her passion is helping all animals, whether furry, scaly, or feathered, lead long and healthy lives.