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Dental disease in rabbits and rodents

By: Nikki Rochin
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Most pet owners are aware that their dogs and cats need routine dental care.  Preventative care may include brushing their teeth, offering dental-friendly treats, and scheduling routine exams and cleanings. 

However, not as many pet owners are aware that our smaller companions need dental care as well.  At Sterling Pointe Veterinary Clinic, we would like to shed some light on this topic, as dental disease in rabbits and rodents can lead to serious health issues if left unaddressed. 

Dentition

Rabbits, chinchillas, and guinea pigs have hypsodont dentition, meaning their teeth continue to grow throughout their lives, unlike dogs and cats.  They require an appropriate diet that will allow them to grind their food in order to wear down the crown of each tooth, facilitating correct contact with the opposite tooth.  Hay is a perfect food for this. 

If not offered hay, the teeth will grow sharp points and cause painful sores on the gums and cheeks.  If the points are severe enough, they can develop abscesses that affect the bone and other structures involving the eyes, ears and nasal cavity.  They will no longer be willing or able to eat enough to sustain them and their gastrointestinal system can quit working.  This is especially common with the shorter-nosed breeds, such as lop rabbits, lion heads and dwarf rabbits, due to their skulls’ conformation.

Clinical signs

Rabbits and rodents are good at hiding illness signs.  When they finally do show symptoms, they are quite ill.  It is difficult for normal pet owners to be able to look at the teeth in the back of the mouth to check for problems.  However, there are other, telltale signs to watch for:

  • Drooling - Pets with painful mouths will drool.  They may have wet, matted or dirty fur around their mouths or on their chins.
  • Teeth chattering – In response to pain, these pets will chatter their teeth, as if they were cold, and will occur if eating or if the face is touched.
  • Discharge from eyes or nose – Abscesses in the mouth can lead to inflammation and infection involving the eyes or nose.  A new discharge from the eyes or nose is suspect for dental disease.
  • Dirty front paws – Rabbits and rodents groom all the time and are very clean pets.  If the front paws are dirty or have crusty fur, it may be due to wiping away any eye/nose discharge.
  • Bumpy jaw – Firm bumps may develop on the bottom of the jaw bone.  Normal bumps are symmetrical.  If a bump is not paired with another on the jaw’s other side, it should be evaluated.
  • Unwillingness to eat – This may occur slowly and in stages.  Chewing harder foods stops first, due to the amount of grinding needed.  They will then stop eating their pellets.  Soft greens will be last. 
  • Changes in elimination – As a pet is eating less, the fecal pellets will change character.  They will get progressively smaller and may stop entirely if the dental disease is severe enough.  They can develop diarrhea if they are only willing to eat soft greens and fruit.

Prevention

The best way to prevent dental disease is to provide an adequate diet, offering grass hay (as much as they’d like), a measured portion of timothy pellets and fresh greens, as is appropriate for the pet’s size.  A variety of fresh greens (dandelion greens, romaine, green leaf lettuce, herbs) is ideal.  Fresh vegetables and fruits may be offered as special treats but limit their consumption, due to the amount of sugar content.  Alfalfa hay and pellets are good choices for young, pregnant or nursing animals.

Routine examinations and dental evaluations should be done regularly to prevent and treat health concerns. 

Nikki Rochin, RVT works at Sterling Pointe Veterinary Clinic, 41 Lincoln Blvd., Suite 10. Call 916-543-9663 or visit sterlingpointevetclinic.com for more information.