Dental care is an important part of pet ownership. Many dog and cat owners do their part to help keep their pet’s teeth clean and healthy. However, small pets are also in need of the same care when it comes to dental health. Guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, and other rodents need dental care just as much as dogs and cats. However, rodent teeth differ from dog and cat teeth, so the type of care is quite different. Imagine trying to brush a hamster’s teeth! There are many different ways to care for a small pet’s teeth, which include giving hard treats, feeding vegetation (including hay and other vegetables), and regularly inspecting the mouth and teeth of your small pet.
Hamsters, gerbils and other small rodents have unique dental needs. Their incisors, the two large teeth you see in the front of the rodent’s mouth, never stop growing. It is estimated that their teeth can grow as much as five inches a year! Therefore, small rodents need to grind their teeth down so the teeth do not overgrow. One of the easiest ways to do this is to give them access to hard food and treats. Using a compressed block of food (usually called lab block or lab chow) instead of seed-based diets will allow the animal to grind her teeth down just by eating. There are also many different types of chew sticks and treats for hamsters, gerbils, and mice available that will help your pet keeps its teeth filed down. Any chew stick made especially for small animals will be safe for them to chew on. Many rodents, if not given ample things to chew on, will resort to chewing on the bars of their cage. Making sure they have plenty of different textures to chew on will help discourage this behavior.
Many problems can arise if there is not enough attention paid to the dental health of your small rodent. Malocclusion, which is the result of the animal’s teeth becoming overgrown or crooked, can result if the animal is not given the proper items to chew on. Since the animal cannot tell us when she is hurt, looking for certain indicators can help let you know if something is wrong. Lack of appetite (especially for hard treats or food), weight loss, or hair loss (from malnutrition) are some of the symptoms to look out for. An easy way to check your rodent is to hold her facing you and pulling back lightly on the animal’s neck skin. This will make her open her mouth, allowing you to get a good look at her teeth. Once malocclusion occurs, the teeth will need to be trimmed. Ask your veterinarian to do this or have him show you how it is done in case it happens again. Older hamsters, gerbils and other small rodents are prone to teeth breaking. Once this occurs, you will need to make sure the animal has access to soft foods until her teeth grow back. Keep an eye on the new teeth to make sure they are coming in properly. Also, the teeth that did not break will most likely have to be trimmed until the other teeth grow in. One way to help prevent teeth breaking in old age is to provide the animal with a calcium-rich diet and stay away from too many sunflower seeds. Prevention of dental problems is much easier than dealing with them when they occur.
Guinea pigs and rabbits differ slightly is their needs for dental care. While rabbits and guinea pigs have incisors just like hamsters, gerbils, and rats, they also have molars. The incisors continue to grow just as a hamster’s do; therefore, rabbits and guinea pigs also need items on which to chew. Again, chew sticks and treats designed for small pets will be safe to allow the animal to chew on. You can find chews and treats for rabbits, as well as different treats for guinea pigs. Since molars are present, there is also a need for the animal to chew on something that will allow for a grinding motion. Timothy hay for guinea pigs or rabbits can provide this needed motion. Allowing your rabbit or guinea pig free access to hay will be one way to help keep incisors and molars filed down properly. Feeding a pellet-only diet can result in dental problems because the pellets do not require the animal to chew in a way that grinds her teeth down.
Malocclusion can also affect rabbits and guinea pigs. Not only can the incisors overgrow, but also the molars. Even with proper inspection, malocclusion of the molars might not be visible. Looking at exterior clues will help determine if the animal is suffering from malocclusion of the molars. These clues would be drooling, lack of appetite, weight loss, chewing like there is something caught in the mouth, excessive production of tears, and bad breath. Checking your rabbit or guinea pig weekly will allow you to catch any of the signs before it becomes life threatening.
Since all small pets’ teeth continue to grow, make sure they have constant access of things to chew on. Also, providing hay to rabbits and guinea pigs (though small rodents will benefit in other ways from hay, too) can help insure good dental health. Remember: prevention is much easier on you and the animal than treating a problem. Happy chewing!
Side note: Ferrets have teeth that are more similar to dogs than to other small pets, such as hamsters or rabbits. Their teeth do not need to be ground down in order to stay healthy. Instead, your ferret’s teeth need to be inspected regularly, like a dog’s, in order to help prevent dental problems. Ferrets need a meat protein diet, so feeding them hay or vegetation could cause problems. However, it is fine to give your ferret toys and treats. Just make sure the toys are treats are specifically for ferrets!