Exotic Dental Care

Dental Care for Exotic Pets

February is National Pet Dental Health Month! Did you know that exotic pets need dental care, too?

In general, most pet owners don’t brush their animals’ teeth, causing a build-up of tartar, and their pet’s breath can become very stinky. Over months to years, tartar accumulates and can lead to gingivitis, periodontal disease, and tooth root infection. Bacteria accumulate in their mouths, which can cause problems in organs such as the heart and kidneys, which can, in turn, lead to life-threatening problems. This is just as true for exotic pet species as it is for dogs and cats.

How do we help prevent such serious conditions? Preventive dental care can do a lot to help. Most exotic pets including ferrets, rabbits, rodents, and reptiles should have a thorough oral examination annually as part of their regular health checkup. Some species, like ferrets and bearded dragon lizards, should have annual dental cleanings just like dogs, cats and people. This allows us to remove built-up plaque and tartar and to examine teeth closely for signs of infection, abnormal wear, fractures or looseness.

Ferrets often crack their teeth from chewing on inappropriate objects such as rocks and cage bars. They commonly break off their canine teeth — often called their “fangs” — exposing the inside of the tooth (called the pulp cavity) and predisposing them to tooth root infection. They also accumulate large amounts of tartar along their gumlines resulting in gum inflammation or gingivitis. Fractured teeth need to be capped and tartar needs to be scaled off. This can be accomplished only with ferrets under full general anesthesia to prevent pain and to allow your vet to access the back of the mouth without the risk of being bitten. All ferrets, but especially those older than 3 years of age, should undergo pre-anesthetic blood testing to help ensure that they are stable for general anesthesia. When performed properly by a veterinarian familiar with ferrets, dental cleanings are a safe and effective way to help prevent serious, life-threatening dental infections.

Believe it or not, bearded dragon lizards need preventive dental care, too. Like ferrets and other pets, they accumulate bacteria on their teeth over time, leading to plaque and tartar buildup and gum inflammation (also called gingivitis). Unlike mammal teeth that are rooted into tooth sockets by ligaments, bearded dragon teeth are directly rooted into their jawbones, predisposing them to bone inflammation and infection. You can help prevent serious conditions by bringing your bearded dragon in for an annual dental scaling, or cleaning, performed while under anesthesia, just like ferrets. As with other exotic pets undergoing anesthesia, bearded dragons should have pre-anesthetic bloodwork to ensure they are healthy enough to be anesthetized.

Rabbits and rodents, such as guinea pigs and chinchillas, also need dental care. Unlike many other mammals, these animals have “open-rooted” teeth, which means they grow continuously throughout the animal’s lifetime. This can lead to a host of dental problems that do not occur in animals whose teeth are “closed-rooted”. In the wild, rabbits and rodents chew on rough, fibrous grasses and shrubbery that help keep their teeth worn down. In captivity, however, pet rabbits and rodents typically don’t consume these same foods. They eat processed pelleted diets and soft vegetables instead, which does not adequately promote tooth wear. Decreased tooth wear predisposes these animals to form sharp spurs on their teeth. Tooth root impaction from overgrown teeth hitting each other inside their mouths with nowhere to go can also be a result of poorly worn down teeth. Sharp spurs can cut into the gums and tongue, leading to pain, inflammation, and sometimes serious infections and abscesses that must be treated surgically.

While rabbits and rodents don’t typically require dental cleanings, they do need to have a complete oral examination every year during their annual checkup. It’s essential that the mouths of exotic pets be checked thoroughly by your veterinarian whenever they aren’t eating normally so that any dental issues can be addressed. If sharp spurs or edges are present, they must be filed down, often under anesthesia, and any loose or infected teeth must be extracted. As with other exotic pets, rabbits and rodents undergoing anesthesia for dental procedures should have preoperative blood testing to ensure they are healthy.

Dental care is a regular part of our daily lives, and it should be a regular part of our pets’ lives, too. We should be addressing our pets’ dental needs at least once a year at the vet’s office. So take advantage of this month’s focus on dental awareness and have your veterinarian thoroughly examine your exotic pet’s mouth to make recommendations for better dental health.

Personal, Professional, Passionate Care for Your Pets