By: Cate Burnette

February is Pet Dental Health Month

All animals – including humans – require regular tooth and mouth cleanings to maintain optimum health. Without dental care, the bacterium that collects and multiplies in the mouths of our pets can travel throughout the entire body, causing chronic illness and organ failure in the digestive tract, kidneys, liver, and heart.

Most pet parents are well aware that their cats and dogs should have regular veterinary exams and dental cleaning. But those of us who take care of small mammals (rabbits, ferrets, rats, gerbils, etc.), horses and/or birds may need to be reminded that those pets also need consistent dental maintenance to stay healthy and happy.

Learn the symptoms of periodontal disease in all your pets and what you can do to help those companions that are just a bit ‘different’ from dogs and cats.

Signs of Dental Disease in Your Pocket Pet (and Cats and Dogs)

Look for these 6 symptoms to determine if your furry companion needs a good teeth cleaning:

1. Gum Inflammation

Also called “gingivitis,” red, inflamed, and sometimes bleeding gums are caused by the bacteria that linger in your pet’s mouth from food particles left in the teeth. The Porphyromonas bacterium typically gathers around the roots of the teeth under the gumline. The subsequent infection can lead to tooth loss, degeneration of the jawbone, and, in chronic, severe cases of dental disease, possible major organ disorders, including cardiac, kidney, and liver disease.

2. Bad Breath

That abnormally bad breath you smell is a direct result of the bacteria from decaying food that causes your pet’s dental infections and gingivitis. Any type of sour, acrid or “fruity” odor is a sign of a disease process going on somewhere in your pet’s body – either in her mouth or some other internal organ.

3. Plaque and Calculus

The yellowish, sticky film seen on your pet’s teeth is a mixture of decomposing food particles and saliva called dental plaque. Left on the teeth, plaque hardens into a brown, thick, bone-like formation called calculus (or tartar) that can cover the entire tooth down into the gumline and harbor a hidden infection.

4. Swollen Jaw

Often, infection around a pet’s tooth root creates an abscess filled with bacteria, blood, and pus. This abscess can get so inflamed that it causes a noticeable swelling of the soft tissues of the jaw. You’ll see a lump either on the lower jaw adjacent to the molars and close to the juncture of the neck – or notice a swelling just under the eye socket on the upper jaw. If the abscess becomes large enough it may burst, breaking through the covering of the skin and allowing pus to seep out of the lump and onto your pet’s fur.

5. Nasal Discharge/Sneezing

When the gums on your pet’s maxilla (upper jaw) become diseased, the roots of the teeth can abscess and create pockets of infection that can reach up into the nasal passages and sinus cavities. As these areas become filled with bacteria, the resulting inflammation causes the sneezing and overflow of nasal discharge known as rhinitis or sinusitis.

6. Trouble Chewing

You may notice your pet is having trouble chewing food, particularly kibble, and is just gulping it down. Rotting, loose, infected teeth and gums can be very uncomfortable and many pets will stop chewing to avoid the pain.

Dental Procedures for Other Pets

Other animals, not just your pet dog or cat, need regular dental examinations and care to maintain good health.

For Horses

The 36 to 44 permanent teeth in a horse’s mouth grow continuously throughout its life. Typically, the front teeth cut grass and hay, while the top and bottom cheek teeth grind the forage between their flat surfaces in a sideways motion. This grinding action breaks down the food into a pulp before swallowing that allows the horse to be better able to digest its food.

As the horse ages and the teeth grow, sharp points develop on the upper cheek teeth toward the outside of the mouth next to the cheek and on the bottom cheek teeth on the inside of the mouth next to the tongue. These points can cut into the horse’s cheeks, gums and tongue causing the animal to be uncomfortable and feel pain. This mouth pain can create various health and behavioral issues for your horse, including:

  • Dropping food from the mouth
  • Difficulty in chewing
  • Excessive salivation
  • Weight Loss
  • Undigested food particles in manure leading to a lack of complete nutrition
  • Head-tossing
  • Excessive bit chewing
  • Resisting having the bridle put on
  • Difficult handling while being ridden
  • Mouth odor
  • Blood in the mouth
  • Facial swelling
  • Nasal discharge

The dental procedure the equine veterinarian usually uses to correct teeth issues is called teeth “floating.” Typically, the vet will first sedate the horse to make it relaxed. A special rope/halter and speculum contraption that holds the horse’s head up and keeps the mouth open is adjusted on the horse. The vet will then either manually file the horse’s teeth using a rasp in a back and forth motion to flatten the high points, or may use a power tool that performs the same action. The whole procedure is quick and painless – taking about 15 to 20 minutes to complete.

You can get an idea what happens during a teeth float by following the steps of the procedure here.

For Small Mammals (Rabbits, Gerbils, Hamsters, Ferrets Etc.)

A common health issue that affects “pocket pets” is dental disease. Small mammals have open-rooted teeth, which mean they continuously grow through out their lives. Proper diet and toys help to maintain normal tooth architecture; however, your pet’s teeth may become overgrown which often affects their eating and bite alignment. A dental treatment will help align their teeth and make eating more comfortable.

Not only do small mammals use their front teeth for grabbing and shearing off pieces of their food, they also have a set of teeth farther back in their mouths for grinding and crushing their food. These teeth are called pre-molars and molars (cheek teeth) and they do not line up exactly on top of one another. Instead, they are offset so the upper teeth sit just outside of the lower teeth. There is approximately three-quarters of the surfaces that overlap when they chew, leaving a portion of the tooth that is not grinding food. The part that hangs over can grow longer over time creating a sharp edge or “spur” that needs to be filed.

Ferrets, rabbits, rodents, and even sugar gliders, hedgehogs, and bearded dragons can suffer from dental disease. Since most ferret owners do not brush their ferrets’ teeth regularly, as they should, many ferrets develop gingivitis (inflamed gums) and tartar buildup, potentially leading to dental discomfort and tooth root infection. Rabbits often develop tooth malocclusion (lack of alignment of the upper and lower jaws and teeth), overgrowth, and abscessed teeth that can cause large swellings on their jaws. These teeth will need to be cut and trimmed.

Other small pets, such as guinea pigs, rats and chinchillas, also have continuously growing teeth and frequently suffer from painful tooth root impaction. Even small sugar gliders and hedgehogs can develop dental disease requiring tooth extraction.

Typically, the teeth will need to be filed and cleaned by a veterinarian starting at 2-3 years of age. There are two procedures. One is called a “hand file,” which is done either with or without sedation, and can be done on an outpatient visit if the animal is calm. This procedure is generally for maintenance of teeth or for less severe spurs. If the teeth spurs are more severe, then the procedure would require heavy sedation or anesthesia and is called a “molar float.” This involves using a motorized rotary file to smooth out the rough edges. This can also be done to smooth out uneven teeth.

For Birds

Like horses and pocket pets, your bird’s beak continues to grow throughout its lifetime. This consistent growth can lead to beak abnormalities that hinder your pet’s ability to eat and provide the proper nourishment needed for optimum health.

  • An overgrown beak can be either the upper (maxilla) or lower (mandible) beak, although it is far more common for the upper beak to develop this condition. The result of trauma, developmental abnormalities, nutritional imbalances, liver disease or viral infection, overgrown beaks can injure your bird’s mouth as well as cause difficulty in eating.
  • Scissors beak is a developmental problem that occurs most often in cockatoos and macaws. Veterinarians believe improper temperatures during artificial incubation, genetics, or incorrect feeding techniques can cause this condition. Calcium deficiency in the diet, trauma, or a viral or mycobacterial infection may also result in scissors beak.
  • Prognathism or “parrot beak” occurs when the upper beak curves down and rests inside the outer portion of the lower beak. Most commonly seen in cockatoos, the cause of this developmental abnormality is unknown, but may include genetics, improper incubation, and hand-feeding techniques by well-meaning bird owners. Since it is rarely seen in parent-raised birds, it is thought that during feeding, the parent bird hooks onto the beak to insert food and this gesture promotes normal growth of the chick’s beak.

Your avian veterinarian can trim any abnormal beak growth back to a normal length without causing discomfort or pain to your pet using hand tools or a dremel. Birds are not normally anesthetized for this procedure.


Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.

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