Dental disease is very common in guinea pigs that are presented to the vets. It is easy to miss the subtle early signs of disease and by the time you notice drooling, eating problems, pain, and weight loss, the disease is usually quite advanced.
Unlike humans, the teeth of guinea pigs continue to grow all the time and are kept to the appropriate size by constant chewing to wear their teeth down. Otherwise, problems such as overgrown teeth, misalignment, sharp teeth edges (spurs) can develop.
The most common causes of a dental disease are the lack of a high-fibre diet for chewing and also the lack of adequate vitamin C. Guinea pigs cannot make their own vitamin C supply, so they need foods that are high in vitamin C such as capsicums, broccoli, tomatoes, and citrus fruits. Fresh leafy greens and herbs such as broccoli, parsley, spinach, carrot tops, celery, Asian vegetables should be offered.
Grass is the usual staple for guinea pigs (constant availability of grass is required) and encourages long periods of chewing which helps to wear down their teeth appropriately. In Singapore, where most of us live in apartments and flats, access to outdoor areas with grass is limited. An alternative is to give free access to grass hay (Timothy, Oaten, Wheaten, Pasture, Paddock, Meadow, Ryegrass hays). A small amount of high-quality guinea pig pellets with a minimum 16% fibre content (not pellet mix) should be given as well.
Unfortunately, once guinea pigs develop dental problems, long-term frequent treatment and management are usually required. Trying to do a comprehensive examination of the teeth while your guinea pig is conscious is extremely difficult as the oral cavity is very narrow and the cheek teeth extend deep into the mouth. General anaesthesia is the only way to look closely at the entire oral cavity.
- The incisors may overgrow and become misaligned when the back teeth (cheek teeth) are overgrown.
- The upper cheek teeth may develop spurs that come into contact with the cheeks and cause pain and ulcers to the inside cheeks.
- The spurs on the lower cheek teeth protrude inwards towards the tongue. In severe cases, the spurs from both right and left lower cheek teeth are so long that they touch each other in the centre, above the tongue to form a bridge. This “spur bridge” traps the tongue and cause difficulty chewing and swallowing.
As guinea pigs’ teeth grow so quickly, repeated burring of teeth under anaesthesia is needed to reduce the length of the teeth. This may be as often as every 6-8 weeks. Most owners of guinea pigs find that dealing with a dental problem is a frustrating and emotionally stressful experience. They feel helpless to see their beloved pet unable to eat, in pain and gradually losing weight.
The best thing to do is to try and prevent this condition. Make sure your guinea pig’s diet contains as much hay or grass as he/she wants and as well as adequate vitamin C through eating leafy greens. Monitor for any signs of early dental disease (as above).Remember your vet is there to help you by providing decision-making advice and treatment, so do not wait to bring your guinea pig for a checkup if you are concerned.