Herbivore Dental Disease
INTRODUCTION: Rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas have incisors and cheek teeth (premolars and molars) to assist in the task of apprehending and chewing food. The teeth are open-rooted, which means they grow continuously throughout the animal’s life. When the teeth are aligned properly, eating fibrous foods (i.e. timothy/orchard grass hay) helps control overgrowth through appropriate wearing of the chewing surface. The top and bottom cheek teeth grind against the food and against each other in a somewhat circular motion.
Complete physical examinations should be performed by an experienced exotic animal veterinarian every 6-12 months to help catch dental disease early, and before permanent damage can occur. While the incisors are often visible on simple exam, the cheek teeth cannot be properly seen without specialized medical instruments. In some cases, a thorough dental exam requires that the animal be anesthetized.
DENTAL DISEASE: If the teeth are not aligned properly (dental malocclusion), the areas of the teeth that do not have an opposing surface to grind against may overgrow and even become pointed in shape. The cheek teeth of the bottom jaw may overgrow into the tongue, causing wounds/ulcers, or they may grow over the tongue, entrapping it and making eating a challenge. The cheek teeth of the top jaw may overgrow into the sensitive tissue of the cheek, causing wounds/ulcers. Left untreated, overgrowth of teeth can result in abscesses of the cheek or jaw, reduced appetite, GI stasis, or even death.
CAUSES OF DENTAL DISEASE: Although dental disease usually occurs in animals over the age of three years, it is occasionally a problem in younger animals, as well. Early disease may be due to Vitamin C deficiency (in guinea pigs), inadequate roughage (hay) in the diet, or a congenital abnormality/poor genetics. In rabbits, selective breeding for particular aesthetic traits and altered shape of the skull (i.e. shortening of the jaw/nose as compared to wild relatives) often causes misalignment of teeth and chronic dental disease. Older animals may develop problems as shifting teeth become misaligned with age.
SIGNS/SYMPTOMS: Decreased appetite, decreased quantity/size of fecal pellets, audible teeth grinding, excessive drooling, and discharge from the eyes and nose may all indicate a problem with the teeth. If you notice any of these signs, please contact your veterinarian immediately.
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT: The best prevention is to feed large amounts of roughage (i.e. timothy/orchard grass hay), which helps to wear teeth and prevent overgrowth. Unfortunately, this may be inadequate in animals with misaligned teeth/a genetic predisposition to dental problems. In order to perform a thorough oral exam and safely perform teeth trimming/filing, the animal must be anesthetized (asleep). Because dental disease can become a chronic issue, frequent anesthetized dental procedures can become expensive. Depending on the animal, it usually needs to be performed every 4-16 weeks. Complications from dental disease can be prevented if problems are addressed early. If you suspect dental issues in your pet, please contact your veterinarian immediately.