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A Rat That’s Long In The Tooth

Dr. Jerry Murray discusses tooth grown in rats, rabbits and some other small animal pets.

By Jerry Murray, DVM
Posted: April 4, 2012, 4 a.m. EDT

close up of overgrown rat incisors
© Jerry Murray
Rat incisors continually grow, and won't wear down properly if they don't eat fibrous food.

A young owner brought in her pet rat recently. The little rodent had some really long incisor teeth. Long incisor teeth are quite common in rabbitschinchillas and guinea pigs, but they are uncommon in rats, hamsters and other ratlike pets.

In rabbits the incisors and cheek teeth constantly grow, and chewing of hay, grass and other fiber-containing plants wears down the teeth. If something prevents this normal wearing down of the teeth, the incisors and cheek teeth overgrow. The most common problem that interferes with the wearing down of the teeth is an inappropriate diet that lacks grass, hay, vegetables and other fibrous plants.

With time, incisors and cheek teeth that are not worn down become abnormally long. This can lead to injuries to the tongue from the cheek teeth on the lower jaw and injuries to the inside of the cheeks from the cheek teeth of the top jaw. This will lead to decrease food intake, anorexia and weight loss. With time dental infections, infection of the jawbone and facial abscesses may develop.

Treatment of dental disease in rabbits depends on the severity of the problem. The goal is to reduce the length of the teeth back to the normal length, treat any infection with an antibiotic, and to add fiber to the diet. Severe cases may need extraction of damaged teeth along with oral and facial surgery to treat the bone (jaw) infection and teeth root abscesses.

Guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus all have teeth very similar to rabbits and are prone to the same dental problems as rabbits. However, rats only have incisors that continuously grow; their cheek teeth do not. Rats do not have dental problems with their cheek teeth, tongue or inside of the cheeks like bunnies do.

When rats do develop long incisors, like in this case, the rat typically has reduced food intake and weight loss. With time the teeth become so long it is difficult for the rat to eat at all, and it becomes emaciated. Some rats also drool a lot.

Treatment for overgrown incisors on rats is to reduce the size of the incisors or to extract the incisors. Needless to say, it is very difficult to extract teeth from a rat; it is even possible to dislocate the front of the lower jaw while trying to remove the lower incisor teeth from a rat. Thus, trimming the rat’s incisors back to normal length is usually done.

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