Pete’s Pets – advice from our resident vet

Buddy is a friendly little hamster, used to being handled. When he stopped eating, his owner was worried, and she brought him to see me for a check-up.

When I opened Buddy’s mouth, the problem was immediately obvious. His lower front teeth had become very overgrown.

They were pushing upwards against his hard palate, preventing his mouth from closing properly. If he could not close his mouth, he could not chew his food.

There was no doubt that his overgrown teeth were severely affecting his ability to eat.

Overgrown teeth are a common problem in the world of small pets. Rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, mice and rats share the same type of dental problems for a simple reason: their teeth are continually growing.

These small herbivores survive by eating plant matter that needs to be ground down into a fine paste before it can be digested. As a result, their teeth become very worn down, compared to the teeth of bigger animals such as dogs or cats.

To compensate for this, their teeth grow continually throughout their lives. In the wild, the natural diet and lifestyle of small herbivores ensures that their teeth remain healthy.

Regular gnawing on grass, wood and other hard substances ensures that the teeth are kept short and sharp. In captivity, small pets tend to be given a very rich diet. They are given energy-rich nuts and grains in vast quantities compared to their wild cousins. As a result, they do not need to spend so much time gnawing on semi-digestible low-energy vegetation.

The disadvantage of this comfortable lifestyle is that their teeth are under-used. The tips of the teeth are not worn down as much as they should be. Gradually, the teeth grow longer and longer, until, as in Buddy’s case, they may be two or three times as long as they should be.

If you can imagine how your mouth would feel if your teeth were much longer than normal, you can get some sense of difficulties that can be caused by overgrown teeth. Treatment of overgrown teeth can be difficult. The front (or “incisor”) teeth are relatively easy to trim, but sometimes the back (“molar”) teeth are also overgrown, and these are much more difficult to reach. A general anaesthetic can be needed, with special rasps and files to reach back into the depths of the animal’s mouth. Even simply trimming the front teeth can be challenging. Traditionally, a simple clipping instrument is used, similar to a type of nail clipper. The teeth are trimmed while the animal is conscious, which can be stressful for the small animal, and there is a risk of the teeth or tongue being damaged while carrying out such a delicate procedure on a wriggling small animal.

The latest recommended technique is to give the hamster a general anaesthetic, and the teeth can then be trimmed in a more controlled way using a high-speed dental cutting drill. However this involves the risk of anaesthesia for the animal, and considerably increased costs for the owner. Once the teeth have been trimmed, it is important for the hamster owner to take steps to try to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

Pieces of wood should be placed in the cage, so that the hamster can keep his teeth trimmed by regular gnawing. Pet shops often sell special chews to be used for this purpose. As soon as I’d trimmed Buddy’s teeth, he was able to open and shut his mouth normally again. When he returned home, he ate a meal at once. Hamster mix looks unappetising to us, but to Buddy, this was a gourmet meal. 

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