The Beast Doctor's Lair

AUTHOR: Bronwyn Dawson, D.V.M.
Dr. Domotor's Animal House Veterinary Hospital
FROM: The FerretPaw Print, January/February 2001

Ferret Dental Hygiene

The yellow fangs gape. The bright-red gums gleam with mucus as the jaws open wide emitting fetid breath straight into your face. You recoil in horror...

Is this the opening scene of a horror movie? No, it is just Flim Flam the ferret yawning his early morning yawn as you bring him his breakfast. Even before your morning coffee sharpens your wits to their usual acute level, you realize something is not right in Flim Flam's state of oral health. This breath was never this noxious before. Did he get into the leftover pizza? As you peer closer, you notice how brown and discolored his teeth are. When did this happen?? Flim Flam does not really want you looking around in his mouth, but you persist and notice a flaming red spot above his upper canine tooth. His gums are much redder than you remember them, but this spot looks like it is on fire. And when you touch it, Flim acts like it's on fire, leaping out or your arms, pawing at his face and - on no - bleeding from the spot. Is this a new and deadly ferret virus? An Old Testament plague?? And why is this happening now when you have 20 minutes to get to work?

Although the name has been changed to protect the innocent, this episode did actually occur. A frantic client with her equally frantic and bloody ferret arrived on our doorstep right at opening time. When I managed to pry Flim Flam's jaws apart, I discovered he had a periapical, or tooth root tip, abscess of his upper canine tooth. Decay had started initially in the gum tissue, bacteria had accumulated under the gum line, and the tooth root eventually rotted, causing the foul breath and red spot Flim's owner had belatedly noticed. After we extracted the bad tooth and cleaned the rest of Flim Flam's teeth, the odor and redness went away and Flim Flam became his former sweet-breath self.

I see many ferret owners who are astounded when I ask them if they brush their ferret's teeth or when I point out tarter in their ferret's mouth. Ferret teeth and gums are exactly the same as those of cats and dogs and subject to the same disease processes. However, ferrets are a special challenge as dental patients due to the small size of their mouths and their attitude toward oral examination. Nevertheless, dental care is as important for ferrets as it is for dogs and cats.

Dental disease actually starts with gingivitis, an inflammation of the gum margins. This inflammation is caused by bacteria that live in the mouth and invade the pockets surrounding the teeth. A thin red line along the margins of the gum and teeth tells you that your ferret has gingivitis. Brushing the teeth will remove the bacteria both mechanically, and, if a antibacterial toothpaste is used, by killing them. Oral antibacterial rinses can have the same effect and are easier to use in ferrets.

Untreated gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, the disease involving the teeth and gum pockets. Plaque is substance made of bacteria, sugars, and bacterial byproducts which coats the teeth and changes the oral environment to make it a better medium for bacterial growth. Calculus or tarter is mineralized plaque that accumulates on the teeth themselves. Ferrets can accumulate significant tarter, particularly on their molar teeth.

As the mouth becomes a bacterial playground, nastier bacteria with more pathogenic potential move in. The infection and inflammation accompanying them can eventually destroy the attachment between the teeth and surrounding soft tissue. Pockets can form around the teeth where more bacteria breed. Eventually these oral bacteria also invade the bloodstream and can cause infections in the kidneys and even the heart valves.

Treatment of ferrets with dental disease is exactly the same as for cats and dogs. Ideally owners will be brushing their ferret's teeth at home before any signs of dental disease are even present. Before you all start rolling your eyes at me (yes, I can se you out there!), let me say that I realize this is easier said than done. Even the cat-sized toothbrushes are awkward for small ferrets and ferrets dislike having their mouths handled. However, there are a few things which can make tooth brushing more feasible. There are small finger brushes (they fit on the tip of your fingers and have a small brush on the outside) made for cats which can also work well in ferrets. I have had some clients who mixed Linatone with cat toothpastes (ferrets hate Crest, Don't try it!) and who received a much more enthusiastic response. The outer arcade of the teeth accumulates most of the tarter, and that is the area to brush. Even the most tractable ferret will generally not allow brushing of the inner arcade.

When dental disease progresses to the point of severe tartar accumulation, then home brushing with not suffice. Veterinarians perform dental prophylaxis, or cleaning of teeth, in ferrets exactly as we do in dogs and cats. The tarter is removed mechanically from the teeth with a dental scaler; the surfaces of the teeth are then polished to slow down plaque accumulation. Obviously, ferrets must be anesthetized for prophylaxies just like dogs and cats. Most cleanings take only about 20 to 30 minutes, even for ferrets with heavy tarter.

I hope I have made a convincing case for the need for good dental care and dental examinations for ferrets. With all their other problems, it is easy to forget something as mundane as tooth care, but it is as important for the ferrets as for any other critter. Besides good dental care makes that first morning yawn much more pleasant! Don't forget to brush your own teeth. - your ferret will thank you.


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