A Guide to Dental Care for Exotic Pets

February is National Pet Dental Health Month, and just like dogs and cats, did you know that exotic pets need dental care, too?

In general, most pet owners don’t brush their animals’ teeth, so tartar can build up, and their pet’s breath can become malodorous. Over months to years, excessive tartar accumulates leading to gingivitis, periodontal disease, and tooth root infection. Bacteria can accumulate in their mouths, eventually traveling through the bloodstream to settle in critical organs such as the heart and kidneys, leading to life-threatening problems. This is just as true for many exotic pet species as it is for dogs and cats.

How do we help prevent such serious conditions from occurring? With preventive dental care, of course! Most exotic pets – from ferrets to rabbits, rodents to reptiles — should have a thorough oral examination annually as part of their regular health checkup. Some species, like ferrets and bearded dragon lizards, actually should have annual dental cleanings — just like dogs, cats and people — to thoroughly remove built-up plaque and tartar and to examine teeth closely for signs of infection, abnormal wear, fractures or looseness.

Ferret Fangs Can Fracture

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, just like with people. This can be accomplished only with ferrets under full general anesthesia, so that the animal is not in pain and that the back of the mouth can be accessed by the veterinarian without the risk of being bitten. All ferrets, but especially those older than 3 years of age, should have preanesthetic blood testing to help ensure that they are stable for general anesthesia. When performed properly by a veterinarian familiar with ferrets, dental cleanings can be a safe and effective way to help prevent serious, life-threatening dental infections.

These Dragon Scales Are a No-No

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). As opposed to 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. To help prevent these serious conditions, bearded dragons should have an annual dental scaling, or cleaning, performed while under anesthesia, just like ferrets. This is a procedure most bearded dragon owners — and many veterinarians unfamiliar with reptiles — aren’t aware these pets should have. As with other exotic pets undergoing anesthesia, bearded dragons should have preanesthetic bloodwork to ensure they are healthy enough to be anesthetized.

With Rodents, Get to the Root of the Matter

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” and stop growing. 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 but instead eat processed pelleted diets and soft vegetables, leading to inadequate tooth wear. Decreased tooth wear predisposes these animals to forming sharp spurs on their teeth, as well as to tooth root impaction from overgrown teeth hitting each other inside their mouths and having nowhere to grow. 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 cleaning as do ferrets, these mammals should have a complete oral examination every year during their annual checkup. It’s essential that the mouths of these 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. At minimum, 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.

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