Chinchillas have twenty teeth, present from birth, and they grow constantly all through their lives. The term for this is ‘open rooted’ and applies across all rodent species. Although this is an evolutionary development meant to give rodents the edge because their teeth will never wear down, giving them difficulty in eating, in actual fact it can cause a lot of problems, because if the teeth don’t meet properly (malocclusion) they don’t wear down, which can result, in the wild, in starvation. The roots can also grow back into the jaw, causing eye problems and issues with chewing. So the open rooted tooth of the rodent is not all good news.
Healthy chinchilla dentition
Chinchillas have orange teeth when they are healthy and this is a great way to do a simple check. If the teeth are yellow or white this usually means that there is a calcium imbalance – the orange colour is caused by iron in the enamel and this is bound with calcium, so it is a nice clear marker that something is wrong. This can be caused by a simple lack of calcium in the diet or some kind of malabsorption in the gut. The teeth should all meet their opposite number on the other jaw. This means that they grind each other down when eating. The inclusion of hay in a chinchilla’s diet is vital, as the silicas in the grass wear the teeth away in just the right way. If the teeth don’t meet, one tooth can grow long and before you know it, the animal can’t eat or sometimes even close its mouth properly. In nature this is very serious, but it can be managed in captivity by visits to the vet for filing or clipping. This should not be attempted at home.
When the teeth don’t meet properly all kinds of problems occur, mostly because the teeth affected can just grow and grow. Malocclusion can lead to root elongation and also the development of burrs or points which can also cause problems with the roots of the teeth. Sometimes, malocclusion is caused by an injury to the chinchilla’s mouth, but more commonly it is caused by a genetic problem. When you source your chinchilla, it is certainly worth asking the breeder for the family history regarding tooth problems although any reputable breeder will not include animals with these issues in their programme. If you intend to breed from your own animals, you should also make sure that there are no tooth problems of this kind in the line and if so, you should never use them for breeding. For the same reason, close relatives should never be mated – this hugely increases the likelihood of any previously unexpressed genetic fault coming to the fore.
Root elongation and spurs
When the teeth don’t meet properly, the root tends to grow at the same rate as the outer tooth and this can cause terrible injuries, as it will grow into the orbit of the eye and into the nasal cavity and tear ducts. This explains some of the early stages of tooth problems in chinchillas, which is rubbing at the eyes or excessive tear production. If a tooth spur develops, this is very painful for the animal and it has to be removed under general anaesthetic. This is quite traumatic for a rodent and prevention is very much better than cure.
Things to watch out for
Unfortunately, not all chinchillas are friendly and many do not want to be held by their owners. In the case of animals like this, which like to keep themselves to themselves, it is important to watch out for other signs that something is wrong with their teeth, because the sooner you discover it and have it attended to, the less trouble it will cause not only at the time but throughout the animal’s life. A chinchilla’s main diet will be pellets, designed especially for the animal’s dietary requirements but also to match its bite. If you find half eaten or crumbled pellets in the habitat, the chances are that the chinchilla is having difficulty in biting them and keeping them in its mouth.
Also, chinchillas like to have plenty of hay to eat and this is quite difficult to manage with a non meeting or painful tooth, so reduced hay consumption is also a sign. They love to chew on things and if your chinchilla really hates to be held, looking for bite marks on bits of wood or toys may help you to check if the teeth are all right. An uneven bite should be immediately obvious. Hopefully, you will notice something is wrong before the animal is in too much pain but excessive salivation or tear production, pawing at the mouth or squealing when eating are all signs that there is something seriously wrong with the animal’s mouth.
Chinchillas and all rodents must chew to stay healthy and so the secret to healthy teeth is to give it loads of things to help it wear them down. Many chinchillas love to gnaw on a cuttlefish and this is safer than wood unless you can be absolutely certain where the wood is sourced. If it has not been seasoned properly, pine in particular can have a lot of phenols in the sap and these are very bad for any animal. Hay is one of the best materials to give a chinchilla as grass contains many tiny crystals of glass-like silica and acts like sand paper on the tooth, cutting through the incredibly hard enamel like millions of tiny knives. Chinchillas can live for twenty years in perfect conditions and looking after their teeth will mean you will have an entertaining pet for a long time.