The Wild Side of Dental Health Month

Feb 15, 2016 / Dentistry / Wildlife

[a youngopossum shows its teeth]

Dental problems can be fatal in wildlife

February is National Pet Dental Health Month. For our pets, regular veterinary visits will address any dental problems, and rarely would these problems be life-threatening. But what about wild species? As Dr. Nichole Rosenhagen explains, dental problems that impair an animal’s ability to eat can be fatal in wildlife.

Gum disease is a problem that veterinarians watch for in pets almost as vigilantly as dentists do in people, but it is not a very big concern for wildlife.

According to Dr. Rosenhagen, a veterinarian who is completing an internship at the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic, “Wild animals usually eat the balanced diets that they evolved to eat, so the food-related dental conditions seen in pets are rare for wildlife. We certainly see some tartar and gingivitis, but the bottom line is, if a wild animal has severe dental disease and can’t eat, it’s not going to live.”

Dental Trauma

“The most common dental problems we see in wild animals are trauma related,” explains Dr. Rosenhagen. Damage to the mouth, such as jaw fractures or broken teeth, can easily occur when animals are hit by a car, fly into a window or are attacked by another animal.

Trauma is very likely to be the cause of another type of dental problem: malocclusion. Malocclusion occurs when the teeth or jaws do not align as they should. A broken jaw that heals in an abnormal position, for example, may wind up causing misaligned teeth.

In animals with continuously growing teeth, such as rodents, malocclusions can pose a big problem.

“In rodents I have seen some pretty terrible malocclusions that have resulted in incisors growing into the animal’s cheek or the roof of its mouth,” says Dr. Rosenhagen.

Birds Have Dental Issues

As for our feathered friends, Dr. Rosenhagen says, “We see broken beaks and malocclusions in birds as well. These are often from trauma but in rare cases, we see malformed or mal-positioned beaks due to nutritional deficiencies, such as rickets, a disease caused by imbalances of vitamin D, calcium, and/or phosphorous.”

Since the beak is a continuously growing structure, it is very dependent on adequate nutrition. Unfortunately, if the bone beneath the keratin of the beak is damaged or infected, the likelihood that that the bird will be able to survive in the wild diminishes.

Management for these dental problems can be tricky in wildlife, since these patients do not have the luxury of a recheck after they are released from the clinic.

A Matter of Life or Death

“If there is a permanent fix to a dental problem, like extracting a non-essential broken tooth, we will do that. Otherwise, animals that would require lifelong care to prevent reoccurrence, like a malocclusion from an old injury, must be humanely euthanized,” Dr. Rosenhagen says.

Sometimes even removing teeth can be detrimental to the survival of wild species. In many cases removing a tooth will not cause a problem, but Dr. Rosenhagen says there are exceptions.

“Incisors in rodents must all be present and in normal orientation. Rabbits need to have two main maxillary incisors as well as both mandibular incisors. Birds need to have normal beak alignment to prevent overgrowth. Carnivores and omnivores really should have all of their canine teeth and carnassial teeth, which are modified molars used to shear flesh.”

Because animals rely on these specialized teeth to obtain and eat their food, releasing animals without these teeth may be a death sentence.

The goal of the Wildlife Medical Clinic is to provide every ill or injured wild animal the best chance at survival. That’s why veterinary experts in the clinic assess the condition of the jaw, teeth, or beak before releasing an animal patient, to make sure the animal is equipped with the tools it needs to feed itself.

If you have any questions about wildlife, contact your local wildlife sanctuary.

By Melissa Giese

Photo from the Wildlife Medical Clinic of a young opossum showing off its teeth.