Not all exotic pets have tooth problems, but chinchillas’ teeth can be problematic. Chinchillas, like other exotic pets, have the type of teeth that grow continuously throughout life. These teeth may require regular dental cuts if the chinchilla does not naturally dull them.
Herbivores, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas, have long teeth that grow continuously, often requiring tooth cuts. These teeth, called hypsodont teeth, have crowns, the part of the teeth you can see, that extend a long length beyond the gums.
Chinchillas’ teeth, like those of other rodents such as guinea pigs and degu squirrels, have open roots and grow continuously throughout life. Wild chinchillas have developed this type of teeth to adapt to the prolonged chewing of the harsh bushes and vegetation they survive on in the Andes Mountains, where they habitually live. Their front teeth, the incisors, can grow up to 5-7 cm a year! I will further detail the causes of this excessive tooth growth and see what other dental problems chinchilla faces.
Hypsodont teeth are unusually long compared to the teeth of dogs, cats, or humans. The natural fretting action through the chewing of toys, hay, and other food products makes the teeth remain at an ideal length for normal herbivores, but often must be cut manually on a regular basis due to genetic and health factors.
The incisors, or the front teeth, of the chinchilla, are most easily identified when they become oversized. Usually, they will grow so much that they begin to curve and come out between the lips. Once they become too long, they can get stuck on various things or, worse, grow into the gums or palate of the chinchilla’s mouth.
The molars, or teeth behind the mouth, can also reach excessive lengths. Molars are difficult to spot without using a speculum to look behind the mouth, but chinchillas with overgrown molars will typically have hypersalivation and difficulty chewing and swallowing.
Pet chinchillas are not usually fed the same type of abrasive food consumed by their wild counterparts. Instead of eating coarse vegetation, they are generally fed dry pellets that break into the mouth, requiring little or no chewing, as well as a little hay. Hay consumption encourages chewing but not at the same frequency as a wild chinchilla would.
Thus, the teeth of the “domestic” chinchilla grow as fast as those of the wild chinchilla. Pets don’t spend so much time chewing so their teeth can grow faster than they are worn out.
Genetic factors can predispose to excessive tooth growth. Both incisors and cheek teeth can grow excessively.
Both the teeth visible in the mouth, the crowns, and the parts of the teeth under the gums, the roots, that are not visible inside the mouth can become elongated. As a result, the crowns visible inside the mouth may look corrugated or like steps, while the roots may feel uneven and irregular when the upper and lower jaws are palpated onto the face.
Crowns can develop sharp edges and points due to irregular wear, causing ulcers and wounds on the gums and inside the cheeks. Elongated roots below the gum line can become painful, like wisdom teeth in humans, and eventually become infected, evolving into large facial abscesses.
If the incisors of a chinchilla grow excessively, they may seem excessively long when the upper and lower lips are slightly raised. When palpating you will feel swelling especially along the lower jaw when passing the hand over the jaw, from front to back.
Before you notice these obvious abnormalities, chinchillas affected by dental problems may experience symptoms such as:
Affected chinchillas can gradually lose weight. The coat may become silky or fall in places around the mouth, chin, and front paws due to excessive salivation.
If the roots of the affected teeth grow in the tear ducts, the affected chinchillas may experience excessive lacrimation.
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Owners who notice any of these symptoms in their pets should make a visit to their veterinarian as soon as possible. Delay in visiting the veterinarian leads to the worsening of the condition and often to a worse diagnosis.
Your veterinarian will conduct a thorough physical examination, including a comprehensive oral examination using an oral speculum to examine the molars. He will also do x-rays of its head to see the roots of the teeth that are not visible from the inside of the mouth. Highly stressed or active chinchillas, which will not allow a speculum examination, may be sedated for examination and x-rays. The diagnosis depends on what the veterinarian finds.
Early dental problems with chinchillas that involve excessive crown growth or sharp points on the crowns with normal X-ray-looking roots may require crown reduction. The surfaces of the elongated teeth inside the mouth will be piled down so that the crowns are shorter and even smooth.
More severely affected animals whose X-rays show elongation and damage to the teeth roots may require long-term anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce chewing discomfort.
Advanced dental problems in chinchillas involving dental abscesses require surgical removal of the infected teeth, drainage of abscess, as well as treatment with antibiotics, analgesics, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Severely affected animals may need to be fed soft foods and sometimes with the help of a syringe to maintain their weight.
Dental problems in chinchillas last a lifetime and usually require repeated treatment. Owners of chinchillas with dental problems should be prepared for recurring trips to the veterinarian and for the long-term expenses that involve these visits.
If done correctly, cutting the teeth is not painful. There are two common methods used for cutting the incisors. The first is by using the usual nail-cutting tools for dogs, as you would do with toenails, but with this method, there is a high risk of cracking or splitting the teeth, because of the force needed when using the cutter. This method can cause pain if the tooth is split to the nerve or cut too short.
The second method is to use a portable rotary tool with a cutting wheel to remove the excess tooth. This method does not cause trauma to the tooth. The only concerns are trauma to the gums or lips if the wheel accidentally pinches them or if the tooth is cut too short. Many exotic pet hospitals will perform these dental cuttings cheaply, the operation being performed by a technician or a doctor, but it should be done under anesthesia.
Shortening the molars can be more difficult than cutting the incisors. Molars are not identified to grow as easily, so the pet is already seen by a veterinarian until it reaches this point.
After the veterinarian confirms that the molars are too long, he will recommend anesthesia to cut and file the teeth correctly. With the chinchilla temporarily incapacitated, a dental drill and portable dental plugs are used. This is the ideal method of cutting the molars, but owners may have financial constraints that restrict them from anesthetizing or sedating their exotic pets.
Owners of chinchillas and other exotic pets with hypsodont teeth should be aware of possible complications related to the pet’s teeth. Without proper care, grown teeth can cause serious trauma, anorexia, and even death due to the inability to chew and swallow.
Fortunately, the problem of grown teeth can be solved with regular tooth cuts or by extracting the problematic tooth or teeth. If you need help with your chinchilla’s teeth grooming, contact your current veterinarian.
The best way to prevent excessive teeth growth in chinchillas is to feed them as much hay as possible. Hay contains coarse fibers that not only promote prolonged chewing but also encourage a healthy gastrointestinal tract (GI), helping to establish a normal population of gastrointestinal bacteria that digest the food.
Some chinchillas, like some people, are genetically prone to dental problems. By taking their pets to regular veterinary checks and paying attention to food, feces, and weight, chinchilla owners can detect some symptoms of dental disease before it becomes a significant, life-threatening one.