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Rabbits and rodents can suffer from a wide range of dental problem. With teeth that continually grow throughout their lives, the vast majority of dental problems that they suffer from are usually related to this growth. While dental problems in these animals can sometimes be obvious — such as in overgrown front teeth in a rabbit — in most cases non-specific signs such as weight loss, drooling, picking up food and then dropping it,or not eating at all are strong indicators of dental problems.
The natural diet of rabbits and rodents
The domestic European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), the chinchilla (Chinchilla spp.) and guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) are all true herbivores. An herbivore is an animal that gets its energy only from eating plants. The natural diet of the rabbit consists primarily of grasses, supplemented with other leafy vegetation. Chinchillas originate from mountainous areas in South America where vegetation tends to be particularly tough, fibrous and abrasive. Guinea pigs and degus also come from South America, but their natural grazing habitats are forest clearings and dry grassland.
Grasses and fibrous plants contain large numbers of phytoliths (plant stone) which are highly abrasive silicate deposits which helps these animals to keep their teeth worn down. These fibrous diets require prolonged chewing, which also helps to promote tooth wear.
Development of dental disease
An incorrect diet — one that doesn’t match what they have in nature and doesn’t provide the correct food for the teeth to be worn down — is the most common cause of dental problems in these pets. A pellet diet alone may be convenient, but it doesn’t provide everything that these pets need (with the exception of mice and rats). A diet of limited pellets, unlimited grass hay or fresh untreated grass, and fresh, dark leafy-green vegetables daily provides the best opportunity for pet parents to mimic a natural diet.
In addition, genetics, metabolic deficiencies and prolonged or extreme nutritional imbalances may also cause problems with tooth growth and eruption. In guinea pigs, both vitamin C deficiency and excessive selenium intake interfere with collagen metabolism which can cause issues. Vitamin A deficiency in these same animals has also been shown to cause problems.
The office visit
Your vet will ask for a complete history on your pet which will include information on diet and behaviors. An examination will then be performed to look for clues that may suggest oral or dental disease. The vet will be looking for signs of drooling, tear overflow, oral-facial swellings, visibly abnormal incisor (front) teeth, jaw chattering or tooth grinding. He or she will feel the jaw to look for swellings, muscle wasting, reduced jaw mobility, or oral discomfort based on the animal's reaction to handling. X-rays may also be needed to see the full extent of any problems.
Preventing problems in the future
While many dental problems cannot be cured, most can be controlled or managed. In extreme cases, surgery may be required. However, oftentimes a change in diet and/or periodic visits to the vet for removal of molar spurs or trimming or filing of the front (incisor) teeth will help to assure your pet remains in good dental health.
Orlando Diaz-Figueroa, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP (Avian Specialty)