As exotics, chinchillas are subject to lots of unusual health conditions. Some of these, like malocclusion, affect a chinchilla’s dental health. You may have already heard of malo, in which case, you may be wondering what it is…
What is malocclusion? It’s where a chinchilla’s teeth grow too long, and can point in different directions. Malocclusion in chinchillas also causes spurs and sharp edges to the teeth which cut a chinchilla’s gums. Dental malocclusion can be prevented or treated, but is fatal if not.
It’s your job to look out for the signs and symptoms of chinchilla malocclusion so that you can fix the issue if it occurs. But how do you treat malocclusion? Or diagnose it, or prevent it? The guide below is a comprehensive answer to each of these questions.
What Is Malocclusion?
Malocclusion, or malo for short, is one of the worst conditions that affects chinchillas. With good care it can be avoided, but if it isn’t, it can become very serious.
Malocclusion is where a chinchilla’s teeth grow too long. Both the crowns (the outside of the teeth) and the roots (the inside of the teeth) grow continually in chinchillas. This can cause deformities in the jaw and significant discomfort.
This stops a chinchilla’s teeth from meeting correctly in the middle. So, its bottom teeth may point to the left while its top teeth point straight down; or, the sets of teeth may point in different directions. This affects the incisors, which are the teeth at the front of the mouth.
Malocclusion can also affect the molars, which are the grinding-teeth towards the back of the mouth. These can grow at an angle that catches the inner cheek. Malo also causes small spurs or sharp edges on both the incisors and molars, which can cut into a chinchilla’s gums and cause infections.
You have to know the signs of malocclusion to stop the condition from becoming too serious. It’s easy to treat and prevent in the early and middle stages, but in later stages, it can cause significant discomfort and even be fatal. It requires veterinary care.
Signs of Malocclusion in Chinchillas
Malocclusion doesn’t develop overnight. It’s an issue that takes weeks and months to become serious. As such, there are symptoms that are characteristic of stages of malocclusion.
If you can spot these symptoms early, you can see a chinchilla vet and get the problem fixed. But if you leave it too long, your chinchilla may be too unwell to survive. The vet may recommend you have your chinchilla put to sleep, or it may die of complications.
The list below is ordered in rough order of when you’re likely to spot each symptom.
1) Chinchilla Not Chewing & Not Eating
Malo makes it physically difficult for your chinchilla to eat long before it’s immediately obvious. Chinchillas break up their food with their incisors, then grind it down with the molars, which is essential as they eat fibrous hay. If the teeth are overgrown and/or don’t meet correctly, it can’t chew correctly.
You can notice this in two ways. The first is by observing your pet. Where before it would forage and eat food all day, now it doesn’t.
The second is by weighing your pet. Weighing your chinchilla on a weekly basis helps you keep tabs on its general health, so it’s good practise. There is no reason why a healthy adult chinchilla should lose weight, so consistent weight loss is a worrying sign, and can indicate malocclusion. You may also notice:
- Your chinchilla frequently picking up, nibbling at, and throwing away hay
- Crumbled pellets
- Difficulty using water bottle, resulting in a wet mouth and chest
- Clear, white or yellow tooth enamel rather than orange (a sign of calcium deficiency)
You can keep an eye out for these issues any time you spot clean your chinchilla’s cage or offer it food.
2) Chronic Pain in Chinchillas
Have you ever had an ingrown toenail? These are similar, in a way, to malocclusion. The nail/tooth cuts into delicate tissue and makes it hard for you to go about your daily life. There’s both a cutting pain as the nail/tooth cuts into tissue, and a deeper nagging pain too.
While your chinchilla can’t tell you it’s in pain, you can tell from its behavior. It will paw at its face and avoid eating. Even once its teeth are clipped, the overgrown roots of your chinchilla’s teeth can cause chronic jaw-ache.
3) Chinchilla Drooling
Chinchillas shouldn’t drool. When they do, the drool mats up the fur around the chinchilla’s mouth and chin, and perhaps on its chest.
This is a symptom with two causes. The first is that the tooth overgrowth can stop the mouth from shutting properly, which lets drool out. The second is that malo causes infections, and mouth infections lead to increased saliva production.
4) Chinchilla Mouth Infection
The spurs and sharp edges of your chinchilla’s overgrown teeth can cut into its gums. These wounds then can’t heal because they are constantly reopened. Because all animals’ mouths are full of bacteria, these wounds can then get infected.
When a wound is infected, you may notice:
- Redness, swelling and irritation
- Excessive drooling
- White pus coming from the wound
- A bad, rotten smell
- Even more difficulty eating
- Your chinchilla pawing at its mouth, as it’s in pain
Infections can occur at any stage of malocclusion, depending on how unlucky the chinchilla is with the angles of its teeth. This will make it even more painful for your pet to eat. Infection can also cause sepsis if the bacteria get to the bloodstream, which is fatal. Ideally, you should catch the malocclusion before it gets to this point.
5) My Chinchilla’s Teeth Are Crooked!
The most basic of symptoms of malocclusion in chinchillas is if its teeth don’t meet correctly in the middle. That’s what malocclusion is. This is easy to see if you handle your chinchilla and look at its front teeth, although malo can affect molars too.
The term malocclusion comes from the Latin word occludere, meaning ‘to shut’. In dentistry it refers to how the top teeth and bottom teeth come together. MAL-occlusion is where the teeth don’t meet properly, i.e. they are crooked.
In the chinchilla owner community, the term ‘malocclusion’ has a slightly broader definition. It can also refer to general tooth overgrowth even if the teeth meet correctly in the middle.
But despite being characteristic of the condition, crookedness typically occurs after the symptoms above.
6) Physical Deformation
Because of root overgrowth, a chinchilla’s jaw can become deformed. It will develop lumps and bumps that shouldn’t be there. This is most evident in the lower jaw, as the teeth here grow quicker.
It is possible to feel this jaw deformity through feeling around the chinchilla’s mouth. But this takes experience, as a novice may struggle to differentiate what’s normal and what’s not. So, a vet or a breeder could, but you might not.
This deformation is a later symptom. While teeth can be trimmed and straightened, a vet cannot fix a chinchilla’s jawbone. The longer the malocclusion goes untreated, the worse the deformation will be.
7) Chinchilla Tooth Fell Out
Malocclusion doesn’t make teeth loose, just crooked. But your pet’s teeth can crack, break or fall out if it gnaws on the wrong materials (as it might if it has malo). If this happens, it indicates that your chinchilla has been gnawing on things it shouldn’t to try and fix its problem.
A tooth falling out in an accident can also cause, rather than be caused by, malocclusion.
8) Chinchilla Eye Infection
This is one of the most serious symptoms of malocclusion. Eye infection has the same symptoms as a mouth infection, bar drooling and difficulty eating.
If you’re wondering why a dental problem would cause an eye infection, that’s a good question. The teeth of the upper jaw don’t only grow out. The tooth and bone inside the mouth also grow larger. That’s because both the crown (the outer part of the tooth) and the root (the inner part of the tooth) both keep growing.
Instead of coming outwards, these push upwards towards the eyes. Bone growth can then block the tear ducts, meaning the eye can’t drain; this causes infection, especially when combined with the chinchilla pawing at its face in pain. This may only be evident on one side of the face; if so, it will be the side worst affect by the malo.
This is one of the final symptoms of malocclusion. If you notice this, it’s likely that the condition is too ‘far gone’ to be fixed completely. Your pet may have to be euthanized.
Note: Eye infections do occur without relation to malocclusion. As such, if your chinchilla displays only the signs of eye infection without the signs of malo, treatment will be different. Talk to a vet for advice.
Other Noticeable Signs of Malocclusion
There are a few other generic signs of malocclusion which you may or may not notice. These include:
- Huddling with cage mates for warmth. Maloccluders do this because they have lost weight, so struggle to keep warm.
- Small, hard droppings. These indicate that the chinchilla isn’t eating or drinking much.
- Not using chew toys. It would be painful for your chinchilla to do so, so it avoids them.
- Soiled or damp fur/paws. This is from the slobber your chinchilla can’t control.
- Chinchilla teeth grinding. The chinchilla may grind together its teeth; it likely can’t help doing so.
If you spot any of these signs, or the others described above, talk to a vet.
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What Causes Malocclusion in Chinchillas?
Rodents have teeth that continually grow longer. To keep them trimmed, chinchillas chew on things like wood which are hard enough to wear down the teeth, but not hard enough to crack them like porcelain or metal could.
If the chinchillas doesn’t have access to something to chew, its teeth will not stop growing. It may try to trim them by gnawing on unsuitable things like metal cage bars. This is one of the key causes of malocclusion, but it’s not the only one.
Inexperienced Ownership Or Neglect
There’s no getting around the fact that neglect is a key cause of poor dental health in chinchillas.
In the wild, a chinchilla would naturally keep its teeth trimmed down by gnawing on foods and rough surfaces. But in a cage, it can’t do that unless the owner gives it the tools to do so. Good owners will give their chinchillas chew toys like apple wood sticks or dried grape vines, and their pets will be happy.
But if an inexperienced owner didn’t know how important these toys were, they might not get any. Their chinchillas would gradually develop malocclusion, and the owner could only correct the situation once it’s serious enough to cause trouble eating.
Then, there are owners who downright neglect their pets. These owners don’t bother giving their chinchillas chew toys, and malocclusion is a certain result. This happens frequently and is common among rescue chinchillas.
Is Malocclusion Genetic?
The growth of a chinchilla’s teeth is driven by genetics. It therefore stands to reason that some chinchillas’ teeth will grow faster than others.
There is no way to tell if this is definitively true for your pet. But you could compare the growth of one chinchilla’s teeth to another of your pet chinchillas. You could even measure them as they grow. Provided that both pets eat the same things, gnaw on the same toys, and all other things are equal, the issue is genetic.
Either way, what this genetic disposition means is that your chinchilla is even more likely to experience malo, especially if you forget to give it chew toys for a while.
Do Accidents Cause Malocclusion?
Malocclusion can also be caused by unfortunate accidents. While chinchilla teeth are strong, they can be knocked out. Accidents can occur even if you’re an attentive owner.
Trauma can also misalign the teeth as they grow. This can be what causes the teeth to point in different directions.
Chinchillas are sensitive to calcium. They need just the right amount. An excess causes bladder stones, while a deficiency causes general ill health; it can also cause malocclusion.
You can spot calcium deficiency because your chinchilla’s teeth change color. While it looks unusual to us, a chinchilla’s teeth should be orange. Lighter yellow or white colors indicate deficiency in calcium.
Calcium deficiency relates to diet. Certain hays are lower in calcium than others: alfalfa has lots of it, while timothy hay has an average amount. That’s why owners use alfalfa pellets or mix alfalfa with fresh timothy hay, as a form of supplement. Chinchillas also gnaw on cuttle bones for calcium, as do many pets.
How Serious Is Malocclusion in Chinchillas?
A chinchilla’s teeth are its primary tool. They are used to grind down food and defend against predators. They can even be used in communication (chinchilla teeth grinding or chattering). A chinchilla’s incisors, its front teeth, are particularly important, so anything that goes wrong with them is serious. If a chinchilla’s teeth are crooked, it means:
- They cause the chinchilla pain, and can cause knock-on infections
- The chinchilla cannot eat easily and so loses weight
- Infection and sepsis are more likely
It’s this weight loss that is most serious for chinchillas.
Is Malocclusion Fatal for Chinchillas?
Malocclusion is eventually fatal if left entirely untreated. That’s because the teeth will never stop growing, even if they are already far too long and crooked. The overgrowth isn’t a choice of your chinchilla, it’s genetic, like fingernails continuing to grow.
As such, as they progressively get longer and longer, the associated issues become worse and worse. So, if your chinchilla is having difficulty eating now, your chinchilla will only eat less and less as its teeth continue to grow.
A combination of the infections that malocclusion causes, plus the difficulty eating, will eventually kill a chinchilla.
Malocclusion can be fixed if detected early. But the vet will warn you that the prognosis may be bad: there’s a high chance of malocclusion recurring, or symptoms like eye infections continuing. So even if your chinchilla is treated, it may not survive. While this is sad, it’s essential that you are fully prepared for what might happen.
How Do You Fix Malocclusion in Chinchillas?
Prevention is always better than cure. It’s far easier (and cheaper, too) to stop your chinchilla’s teeth becoming crooked than it is to fix them once they are.
If the malocclusion has become severe, though, you will have no choice but to visit a vet. The sections below explain how to prevent malocclusion, and what to expect if it becomes serious.
How to Prevent Malocclusion in Chinchillas
Prevention is as easy as providing proper chew toys for your chinchilla. There should always be one available in your pet’s cage.
The most common chew toy is an apple wood stick. These are short sticks you buy in bundles from pet stores. The wood is the right consistency for a chinchilla’s teeth: not too hard, and not too soft. It’s safe to ingest (as your chinchilla accidentally does when it gnaws things). Grape vines are another option.
Malocclusion may also occur because of incorrect diet, although some owners/breeders don’t think so. The idea makes sense: chinchillas should eat a high fiber diet of hard-chewing hay. It’s conceivable that this has some effect on the teeth, whether slight or not. If this is true, then feeding your chinchilla the correct diet of 90% hay would help prevent malocclusion.
Serious owners recommend yearly or biannual X-ray checks. This is the best way to catch malocclusion before it becomes serious, as X-rays show damage to the tooth roots that can’t be seen externally.
Can Vets Fix Malocclusion in Chinchillas?
Once the malocclusion becomes serious enough, you will need a vet’s assistance. They will first diagnose the malocclusion through an oral examination. The vet may use something called an otoscope to observe the cheek teeth, i.e. the molars. Sedation may be necessary as the chinchilla may panic if it’s handled in this way. The vet may also take X-rays to check how serious the issue is, as the jaws themselves and the eye sockets can be affected too, and this can’t be seen from the outside.
Upon diagnosis, can trim a chinchilla’s teeth. The cost of the procedure depends on your vet: some are expensive, some less so.
But if you let the malocclusion get bad enough, there are aspects of it that cannot be fixed. This refers to the bone growth of the jaw which blocks a chinchilla’s tear duct. There is a surgical operation that can correct this, but chinchillas are too delicate for it to be done.
How To Trim Chinchillas’ Teeth
You could trim a chinchilla’s teeth with sharp clippers. However, this isn’t a good idea, and you should have a vet do it instead. Things that go wrong include:
- You can severely stress your chinchilla. In its struggles to get out of your hands, you could hurt it or it could hurt itself. You don’t have access to anesthetics to prevent this problem.
- The clippers may not be strong enough.
- The clippers could cause cracks all the way up your chinchilla’s teeth, making the problem worse.
- Trimming molars would be difficult, even if trimming the incisors would be easy.
So, if you can’t, how do vets trim a chinchilla’s teeth? The vet may use a Dremel tool to slice off/grind down the top of the tooth. This is a tricky procedure that can easily go wrong, as the Dremel could damage your chinchilla’s gums and lips. To wear down the molars, a dental bur and/or a file are used as this is a more sensitive operation. They could also use something called a bone rongeur, which is like a special trimmer for teeth and bone. Repeat trims may be necessary.
Your chinchilla will be placed under anesthetics for the operation. This stops it from panicking and squirming and is essential to ensure that things go smoothly. It is possible that your chinchilla will not wake up from the anesthetic; the more unwell your chinchilla is, the likelier this is.
Vets cannot fix malocclusion where it affect your chinchilla’s tear ducts. The bone that causes this issue is difficult to access, and the tear duct and eye are very sensitive. As such, no operation is currently recommended or performed.
Malocclusion Prognosis (Outcome)
Even if the operation is a success, your chinchilla may not fully recover. You must be prepared for your chinchilla’s continued difficulty eating. The vet may recommend that you syringe-feed your chinchilla rather than letting it feed itself. This is stressful both for the owner and the chinchilla.
There’s also the chance that the malocclusion will recur. This means it will come back, perhaps worse than it was before.
It’s for these two reasons that many vets recommend euthanasia, i.e. putting your chinchilla to sleep. Because malo causes significant pain, this may be the most humane option. The vet will determine this based on how far the upper teeth have grown into the jaw and eye socket.