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Dental and Digestive Health for Small Animals

Dental Health for Small Animals 

Dental issues are a huge problem especially when it comes to rabbits, but also rodents and even some ferrets. This is because many of these animals, other than ferrets, have continuously growing teeth. A rabbit’s teeth are open rooted as opposed to our teeth which are close rooted. Once we grow to adulthood, our teeth stop growing. But, that's not true of rabbits whose teeth grow throughout life. Also, the front teeth of many rodents grow continuously. This includes rats and mice, guinea pigs and chinchillas to list a few. This can be a very important issue because if these teeth are continuously growing, and they are not being worn down properly, this can lead to all kinds of dental problems. As an exotic animal veterinarian, the dental issues that I face are huge. We see so many problems with rabbits, and with some rodents, who develop medical problems when they're not eating the right things. As a result, their teeth become infected and impacted. 

Dental Health for Rabbits

In the wild, rabbits are chewing on a lot of rough grasses, shrubbery and coarse fibrous material plants. This helps wear down their continuously growing teeth. Unfortunately, in captivity, while we try to keep up with this continuous growth by providing hay that is coarse, rough, and fibrous, it's not as rough and fibrous as the foliage that they chew if they were in the wild. Rabbits are not able to wear down their teeth solely with hay. We also like to provide other things that they love to eat, including pellets. They love pellets because they are tastier for most rabbits than hay. Given a choice, many rabbits will choose pellets over hay. While there certainly are important nutrients in pellets, hay should make up the bulk of their diet. So, it's important that you provide a lot, of course and rough dry hay that will help prevent teeth overgrowth. This provides an opportunity for them to chew for long periods of time.

Why Fiber is Important to a Rabbit’s Health 

Rabbits grind their top teeth and  bottom teeth together to wear down those little fibers of hay. When this happens, the hay is worn down to the point of it being digested properly. Rabbits handle the fiber very specifically in their gastrointestinal tracts. Keep in mind, fiber is essential in the rabbit’s diet. It should be the number one thing that they're eating, not just for dental health, but also for digestive health. You should provide your rabbit with unlimited amounts of hay.


Which Hay is Best?

There are many kinds of hay. You hear of Timothy Hay, probably most often. Timothy Hay is a wonderful hay that most rabbits and rodents really love. It is perfect for an adult animal and has the adequate amount of protein, fat, calcium for an adult rabbits’ body or an adult guinea pig or chinchilla. Some of the other hay like Alfalfa, is fairly controversial in the sense that many people believe that you should not provide excessive alfalfa hay to adult animals. This is because it does have an excessive amount of calcium, and it can potentially lead to the development of bladder stones. If all that calcium sediments out into the bladder, it forms like the sand at the bottom of a snow globe. If you picture a snow globe as your rabbit’s bladder, that calcium can deposit on the bottom like that sand in the globe and stick together and form bladder stones.

A little bit of alfalfa hay is fine for an adult animal. Certainly, if your rabbit or rodent is growing, or if it's lactating and producing milk for babies, then these animals need added calcium, so it's fine to provide an extra dose of alfalfa hay. There are some other hays for example, like meadow hay which is a softer form of grass hay, orchard grass hay and straw hay and many more. These examples of hay are ones that you can provide to your rabbit or your rodents and provide variety in their diet. This keeps them interested in eating hay which should be the number one component of their diet, along with a smaller amount of pellets.

Overfeeding Your Small Animal

If you overfeed pellets, this can cause gastrointestinal disturbance which can lead  to overgrowth of abnormal bacteria. This happens because the pellets are mostly carbohydrate with some fiber in them. The excessive carbohydrate can change the P.H. of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to the overgrowth of the gas producing bacteria in the GI tract.

When animals eat too many carbohydrates the gas producing bacteria come in, making them feel gassy and bloated and makes them not want to eat. This can lead to potentially a life-threatening condition called Gastrointestinal Stasis, which is a slowing down of the passage of food through the GI tract. Bacteria can develop there and they produce horrible toxins and it can be life threatening. The best way to prevent this is to provide lots of hay and lots of fiber to your rabbit or to your rodent. Providing fresh greens is very important because greens have fiber and they also promote chewing and they also have a lot of water. Keeping the animal hydrated and keeping that GI tract going with all the added water and greens are also very important for dental and GI health.

The Importance of Vitamin D

Even if you're providing your small animal a good quality combination of hay and pellets, they're not really absorbing that calcium properly because they're not making vitamin D. As a result, they suffer from metabolic bone disease. This means that they're their teeth and their jawbones don't form normally without the proper amount of calcium because of the lack of sunshine and vitamin D. As a result, they are predisposed to developing dental problems.

So, the question is should you have your rabbit around outside exposed to sunshine? It's a great idea to expose your rabbit or rodent, to sunshine in warm weather when they're not overly cold. If it's snowing or it's freezing out, you don't want to put them outside, but you also don't want to overheat them. Rabbits and chinchillas are very subject to overheating. You can put your animal outside in a cage for short periods of time when they're supervised. You don't want to put them out when they're exposed to wild animals because they could potentially swoop down and pick them up. If you have a porch in your home or an area that you can pen off this is the best option for getting your rabbit outside to get some sunlight so they can get some vitamin D. Particularly as they're growing, this may make them have stronger jaws, healthier teeth, and it may help prevent some of the dental problems that we see.

Helpful Tips to Help with Dental Problems

Some of the dental problems that we see in rabbits and rodents are genetic. There are a limited number of things we can control about the genetics of healthy teeth in rabbits and rodents. Provide adequate fiber and a balanced diet with unlimited amounts of hay and smaller amounts of pellets. Usually no more than a quarter to a maximum half a cup of pellets per four to five pounds of bunny weight per day with lots of fresh, leafy green vegetables. You want to avoid excessive amounts of alfalfa and high calcium greens like parsley, kale, and spinach.

Some rabbits and rodents prefer a water bottle versus a water dish. Make sure they drink and ample amount of water  and get them to moving around to limit obesity. To keep them moving, you can put the food around their enclosure, so they move around and don't become obese. This can really help with digestion as well. You don't have to supplement rabbits and rodents with added vitamins if they are on a proper pelleted diet in supplementation with lots of hay and leafy greens. Diet is key to making sure that their teeth stay as healthy as we can make them.

Ferret Dental Health Exams

Ferrets don't have open rooted teeth the same way rabbits and rodents do. Their teeth are more like cats and dogs where they grow when they're young and then they develop into adult teeth.
Ferrets have baby teeth that are pushed out and the adult teeth come in just like humans. You can imagine that if ferrets’ teeth are not brushed, they can get nasty. Ferrets do need annual dental cleaning and that's something that your veterinarian can check out. If the teeth develop a lot of tartar, they should have professional cleaning generally done under anesthesia at your veterinarian office which is safe. If you have an older ferret, you'll want to make sure your veterinarian does some blood work first before putting your animal under anesthesia. Chiseling off tartar, polishing the teeth, keeping them fresh and clean, and making sure the gums aren't infected is very important.

Small Animal Dental Health Exams

When it comes to rabbits and rodents, we don't clean the teeth per say. We do dental checkups, at least annually on rabbits and rodents, guinea pigs, and chinchillas. These are all animals that potentially have teeth that will grow, and they should be examined. This includes an exam, not just of the front teeth, but of the back teeth as well. Your veterinarian should be trained with the proper instrumentation to look in the back of the mouth to make sure things look healthy and that there's no discharge, broken teeth, swelling of the gums, or pus coming out from around the gums. A trained veterinarian who's savvy in small animal care can safely take out these teeth. This is done under anesthesia with proper instrumentation. This is a very big deal in rabbits and rodents who have open rooted teeth and can get infections.

Chinchilla Dental Issues

Chinchilla's have a unique type of problem where they tend to get tooth root impaction, not necessarily infection. If you can think of wisdom teeth that humans have that keep growing and don't erupt from the gum line. Chinchilla's teeth will grow continuously, and they'll hit in the back of their mouth. If you imagine that the mouth is sort of a sideways V with the point of the V in the back of the mouth. If the teeth in the very back of the mouth, the pointed part of the V, hit each other, the front of the mouth which is the open part of the V kind of splays open. This means chinchilla's and even some guinea pigs can't close their mouth properly and the muscles of their face develop in a deformed way and they can't chew properly.

It becomes very painful for them to chew because as all of their teeth hit each other in the back of the mouth and the mouth opens they can't properly close their jaws and they become impacted. This typically happens when these animals are not eating enough rough hay and grasses. Chinchillas are  naturally found in Andean mountains and in the wild they are wearing down their teeth on rough shrubbery. We don't provide that same kind of roughage to them in captivity. They commonly develop tooth root impaction, sometimes infections but impactions are more common. We see this in Chinchilla as they try to eat and drop their food or sometimes, they'll start drooling excessively because it's painful. This is even harder to treat because we can't pull out all of chinchilla's teeth. These are things that you should certainly be looking for if your animal looks like if he or she is hungry and can't eat, chew, can't apprehend the food or tear it with their teeth. These are signs there’s a problem when they are dropping their food, salivating, losing weight, selective in their food and they're only eating crumbly soft food like the pellets and not grinding down on the hard-rough shrubs and they're eating less hay over time. Look for these signs for ways to prevent dental disease as best you can in your animals and having your veterinarian check your small animals’ teeth is very important every year. Often, unfortunately, when animals develop these problems, surgeries can be indicated, and it can be complicated deal. So, trying to prevent these infections and impaction from happening key.

As you can see dental care is very important to the life and overall health of your small pet. Take time to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian and put dental needs on the list of questions to discuss during this time.