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Rascally ferrets, fat rabbits & pets with scales...all have teeth that need checking

Posted in Festival of All Things Dental @ Aug 18th 2014 - By Dr Jayne Weller, Animal Referral Hospital, Sydney
Rascally Ferret Teeth

Dogs & cats - check! But as a veterinarian how aware are you of dental disease in exotic pets?

As a profession, we are all relatively aware of dental disease in our dog and cat patients and for the majority of us checking a canine or feline mouth is second nature and we would rarely forget to do it during a physical exam.

But what about our exotic patients?

Ever looked at that rascally ferret in your exam room only to decide that it’s wriggly little body was too hard to wrangle just to have a quick squiz at its razor sharp pearly whites?

Or what about the fat rabbit and guinea pig that came in yesterday?  ‘Surely there is some tool not available to GPs to look at their molars’ I hear you say.

Reptiles? Do they have teeth? or dental disease? and how do I even open their mouths? Right?

That’s right indeed! In fact, about 90% of my referred or second opinion cases have never had a dental exam in their lives!

So let’s think about it sensibly – exotic pets have teeth, exotic pets eat food, exotic pets can get infections, have traumatic injuries and feel pain. So that means… EXOTIC PETS CAN HAVE DENTAL DISEASE!!!

So, while this blog is too short to go through all the ins and outs of all the species’ dental disease possibilities there are some simple points to remember that might help your next exotic pet dental exam go a little smoother!

The wriggly ferret

The first challenge of examining a ferret is finding a suitable handling method that allows you to look at the animal’s teeth without getting bitten. The simplest method is scruffing the ferret. When the ferret is scruffed and held just off the table (supported with a hand on the rump) it will readily yawn. This is a fantastic opportunity to have a look at all the teeth. The great thing is that this doesn’t just work once! You can do it several times to achieve a more thorough oral exam.

The rabbit and guinea pig

Rabbits and guinea pigs have a few things in common but when we are talking about dental disease they have one important common trait – small mouths! I admit it is a huge challenge to get a good view of rabbit and guinea pig cheek teeth and I dislike it as much as the next person. But, the only gadget you need is an otoscope. Yep, that’s it! Wrap your patient in a towel nice and tight and get your nurse to hold the animal so that it is upright. Place your hand over the rostrum, lift the top lip and insert the otoscope tip into the mouth via the diastema. You should be able to visualize the opposite side of the mouth from each diastema. Check for step mouth, lingual and labial spurs, traumatic lesions to the tongue or lips, purulent discharge etc. AND practice makes perfect  :)

The scaly creatures – Reptiles

Yes of course they have teeth!! Obviously there are many different body plans in the reptilian world and just as many possibilities on the dental front so let’s just cover them very briefly.

Snakes have 4 different dentitions:

  • fixed front fangs with almost closed venom grooves,
  • backwards facing fangs,
  • solid teeth without venom grooves and
  • fangs that have closed venom grooves allowing them to inject venom like a needle.

Some species have fleshy coverings over their teeth that can fold back to bear more teeth. Snakes have multiple rows of teeth – usually 4 rows on the top and 2 on the bottom! Snake teeth can be easily broken during eating or hunting prey. This can allow for bacterial infections in and around the teeth. Sometimes the infections can involve the bone that the teeth are attached to. Oral exams in snakes need to be carried out carefully so that no teeth are broken. Teeth are not found at the front and centre of the mouth so you can ease something like a nail pick from a surgery scrub brush into this area and the snake will open its mouth without too much issue.

Dragons and Skinks either have acrodont teeth which just attach to the surface of the bone or pleurodont teeth which attach to the occlusal surface of the bone and down the lingual surface of the bone. These teeth do not have roots. Therefore if these animals have dental disease it will usually involve the bone. Mandibles can often fracture pathologically due to severe dental disease so it is very important to check their teeth during physical exams. Opening dragon and skink mouths can be challenging. Sometimes moderate pressure at the commissures of the lips simultaneously can aid in opening the jaw. Once the mouth is slightly open something soft like folded tape or Elastoplast to make a material strip can be advanced into the mouth to keep it open to facilitate oral exam.

So next time you are faced with something different in your consult room, remember the tricks and let’s all get looking at teeth!

If you have any questions about treating exotic pets & their teeth why not ask Jayne in the comments section below?

Dr Jayne Weller has spent most of her professional career working with wild and exotic animals.  After completing a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Bachelor of Arts in Music and English Literature in 2003, Jayne became a zoo keeper at Mogo Zoo in NSW where she cared for a range of wild and exotic animals. In 2007 she returned to the University of Sydney to complete her Bachelor of Veterinary Science.

Jayne was the clinical veterinarian at the University of Sydney exotic pet hospital after graduating from a Bachelor of Veterinary Science in 2011 and she is now at the Animal Referral Hospital at Homebush. Jayne has extensive knowledge of all things unusual and exotic and in her role consulted on both referral cases and general cases in all species. 

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