It is pet smile month in September, a national initiative to raise owner awareness of the huge importance of caring for the dental health of their pets. Absolutely brilliant, but it focuses only on cats and dogs. It is easy for owners to forget to think about the dental health of their rabbit, guinea pig, or chinchilla.
These pets are unique, in that their teeth grow continuously throughout their life. In fact, their tooth growth is very fast at a rate of several mm per week in the rabbit, for instance. It is the grinding action of chewing food that prevents overgrowth and wears the teeth down to their normal length. Because the grinding action of chewing is so important, so is the diet that we feed these pets:
- hay and other course fibre should be by far the largest component of the diet, followed by leafy greens (think grass and lettuce, rather than carrots). This will also help your pet’s digestive system to stay active.
- pelleted food is nutritionally balanced, but actually changes the action of chewing and so may predispose your pet to unevenly growing teeth. It is recommended that this is used as a treat.
- cereal based foods lead to selective feeding and are not good for any of the ‘small furries’- stay away!
- root vegetables and fruit are high in sugar and should be used only as treats.
It is also thought that Vitamin D may play a role in rabbit dental disease- especially in house rabbits that don’t see much sun!
It is important that your pet is brought in to the vet for regular dental checkups. Conscious examination will pick up only about 50% of dental disease in these herbivorous pets. The other 50% is picked up only under general anaesthesia, which would be performed if dental disease is suspected on the basis of the history and physical examination. Signs to look for include not eating, drooling, elongated front teeth, bumps under the jaw, discharge from the eyes, diarrhoea, weight loss and general ill-health. Sometimes you won’t find these symptoms until dental disease is very advanced. Chinchillas in particular will pretend to be healthy until they are very ill indeed.
Overgrown cheek teeth can grow spurs, lacerating the tongue and cheeks, which is extremely painful (no wonder they stop eating!). These will need to be burred away. The roots can also grow too long, creating abscesses that are very difficult to treat and blocking the tear duct. These pets will alter how they chew and eat, upsetting their digestive system. In the worst cases, the problem can be fatal.
So do keep an eye on your pet’s teeth, and have a good chat about diet and dental health at your next appointment at the vet. Your pet will thank you for it!