Teeth Issues in Squirrels
Infant tree squirrels have three pairs of milk teeth that are replaced by adult teeth when the squirrel is four to five months old. Once the adult teeth come in, they do not re-grow if lost or removed. The baby’s lower incisors come in at between three and four weeks with the upper incisors following at five weeks.
Tree squirrels normally have twenty teeth, including two upper incisors, two lower incisors, and sixteen molars. Eastern gray squirrels are an exception with twenty-two teeth, having an extra pre-molar on each side.
Squirrel incisors continuously grow in a highly curved trajectory throughout their lives, on average about 6 inches per year.
The front of the incisors are covered by hard orange tinted enamel that helps maintain the sharp cutting edges of the teeth. During normal eating and chewing, properly lined up teeth rub against each other (occlude) grinding down equally and evenly to the right length.
Malocclusion is the improper alignment of the incisors. This includes any time the top and bottom teeth of the squirrel don’t line up exactly, such as with an overbite, underbite, or wrong position of the teeth.
Teeth which do not line up will continue to grow and eventually result in the death of the squirrel, either by penetrating the skull or jaw, or causing starvation by preventing the squirrel from eating altogether.
Malocclusion is a serious malformation that results in the squirrel being non-releasable. Maloccluded teeth must be trimmed approximately every four weeks throughout the squirrel’s life.
Orange tinting on the teeth in squirrels is normal. Looking closely at squirrel teeth, they may be different colors on the front (more orange) than on the back (whiter). The tooth is actually softer in the back causing an uneven wear, which gives the tooth the sharp chisel shape. It is also normal for there to be some minimal ‘play’ from side to side as each tooth can move separately from the other.
The squirrel needs to been seen by a veterinarian if you notice any difficulty chewing, weight loss, mouth sores, excessive drooling (fur matting around the mouth, chin or chest) or overgrown teeth.
If the animal is able to eat with no problem, nothing needs to be done. If it cannot eat on its own, treatment is required. The teeth may just need to be trimmed to make them even. Often the teeth will grow back correctly and the problem is fixed. Where the teeth do not grow back evenly, the squirrel is not releasable. A tooth trimming requires expertise and should not be attempted by a novice. The teeth are ‘trimmed’ by gently cutting with clippers or grinding then down with a Dremel. Care must be taken not to cut the wrong part of the squirrel or shatter the tooth. It’s a rare squirrel that will calmly allow you to reach into its mouth and cut or grind its teeth without trying to separate you from your fingers - seek out veterinary assistance your first few times.
Click one of the videos below to watch a demonstration on trimming occluded teeth.
Learning to care for a maloccluded squirrel can appear daunting; however, with practice both you , and the squirrel, will become more comfortable with the procedure. Nonetheless, many people caring for maloccluded squirrels opt to have a veterinarian perform the procedure on a regular basis. Prices vary widely among veterinarians so calling around can be worth the time.
When a squirrel is recovering from tooth issues, good supportive care is essential. Diet during recovery should be a combination of soft natural foods; as well as, harder foods like rodent block.
The animal will need soft foods to eat the first few days after the squirrel’s teeth are cut. Work with your vet and follow instructions closely.
Odontoma is believed to result from early trauma to teeth from chewing on cage wiring, hard surfaces, improper teeth clipping, or injury to the teeth from a fall. There is also some evidence of potential a genetic origin in some species. Since squirrels and prairie dogs have continuously growing teeth, any facial trauma puts them at high risk for odontomas, which may not surface until years after the initial injury.
Preventing tooth trauma in the first place is the best way to prevent an odontoma. Should tooth trauma occur, an x-ray should be done immediately, with follow-up procedures done intermittently to catch changes at the tooth’s root. If an odontoma is suspected, early extraction of the injured tooth/teeth must be performed to stop the tumor’s progression. An unchecked odontoma will kill the squirrel.
The first symptoms of odontoma are usually a secondary infection in the sinuses. If a squirrel appears to have a runny nose or symptoms of a ‘cold’ and the upper teeth are short, blunted or have the appearance of growing backwards, Odontoma should be suspected. An x-ray of the skull will confirm the diagnosis. Since the condition affects the squirrel’s ability to breathe and eat normally, the squirrel will inevitably start eating less and losing weight. It is not uncommon for the squirrel to begin to show signs of GI upset.
Some veterinarian recommend taking a baseline x-ray of the squirrel’s skull during the first health visit for subsequent comparisons throughout the squirrel’s life to assist in catching signs of a growing tumor early when they are most treatable. Obviously, having access to a veterinarian with experience and knowledge about exotic pet squirrels and prairie dogs will increase the odds of catching the disease early. Generally, by the time the squirrel or prairie dog is showing symptoms, the odontoma is fairly advanced.
Tooth removal in squirrels is very traumatic since each tooth grows in a curved fashion (well into the skull) and any swelling resulting from removal can block the animal’s airway. If you elected to have surgery performed, ensure the veterinary surgeon has a lot of experience pulling rodent or rabbit teeth.
Once an Odontoma is present, there are no non-invasive options for the care and treatment of the squirrel.
Generally, you may opt for surgery in less advanced cases or provide good supportive care and medications to keep the squirrel comfortable for as long as possible - until quality of life diminishes to the point that humane euthanasia is warranted.
Odontomas in some cases may not be preventable, being caused by genetic factors or from trauma to the underlying facial bone structure before the squirrel came into your care.
Some research suggests excessive chewing on cage bars out of boredom may be the culprit. It is very important that captive squirrels be provided with plenty of time to exercise, play, enjoy a variety of mentally stimulating activities and perform normal squirrel behaviors such as seeking and hiding food.
Another theory is that odontomas can occur from improper teeth trimming in the case of a maloccluded squirrel. Always use very sharp professional strength jewelry cutters to avoid crushing or cracking the tooth when trimming. Each incisor sits in its own socket and can move somewhat independently from the other. It is believed that excessive movement may be one causative factors placing a squirrel at higher risk for dental tumors.