Gerbils are rodents and the name ‘rodent’ comes from the Latin word 'rodere' which means ‘to gnaw’. This is a vital thing to remember when keeping any rodent, that their teeth keep on growing and that to keep them down to the right length, the animal needs to gnaw on hard things to grind them down. If they can’t do this, their teeth will grow and will eventually form curled tusks, which might in time even puncture the cheeks and grow into the mouth. If one tooth is damaged preventing gnawing, the other teeth will keep on growing so it is essential that the owner keeps an eye on the teeth of the gerbils in their care.
Things to watch out for
One thing not to worry about is if your gerbil has orangey or yellow teeth. This is a common occurrence in rodents in general and is just caused by iron in the diet being laid down in the tooth enamel; it is absolutely nothing to worry about. If a gerbil breaks a tooth it is not able to gnaw properly so if you notice a tooth missing – and because they are friendly little animals who have an upright posture quite often, facing a handler this should be quite obvious – then it is important to make sure that the other teeth don’t overgrow and also that the gerbil can get enough food. It should be given a softer diet, or its usual diet soaked in water to make it soft until the tooth grows back.
Sometimes, in an animal which is not handled often, the first sign is a loss of weight and then when the teeth are examined they are found to be overgrown. They will need trimming by a vet but the important thing to remember here is that once they overgrow they will need regular trimming; this gets to be an expensive and rather tedious procedure after a while so it is far better to keep an eye on those teeth and not to get into that situation.
Treatment of dental problems
Overgrown teeth can be trimmed by a vet as long as the situation has not gone on too long. If the teeth have become really long – and this would be a sign of quite extreme neglect – they will have to be trimmed under sedation and if they have grown into the inside of the mouth there may be associated abscesses and other problems such as bacterial infection or necrosis. It is fair to say that by this time the animal will be in a bad way generally, as it will have been unable to eat or drink properly due to the condition of the teeth and so the whole procedure may be too much for it and euthanasia may be the only viable course. Some animals do have a tendency towards overgrown teeth – if as a prospective owner you are buying in a situation where you can check the parents, this would be a good thing to make sure of; a parent with a bad tooth problem may be a good reason to buy elsewhere or from another litter.
Prevention of Dental Problems in Gerbils
A gerbil in its natural habitat will eat berries and grass and to keep its teeth from growing too long will gnaw constantly on tree bark. The silicon in the grass blades also helps to keep its teeth from growing out of control. The secret to preventing any problems with overgrowth is to give the gerbil as close to its natural diet as possible, including quite a lot of hard things in the diet – a good quality proprietary food will have done this for you – as well as lots of things to gnaw.
Types of Wood to Chew
It will particularly like a small branch from the garden, but it is very important to check a few things first before heading outside with the secateurs. Firstly, is the tree or shrub poisonous? You would be amazed at how many are. Most people know about yew, but also to be avoided are laburnum, laurel, privet and also, in certain seasons, oak, because it has a lot of tannin in it and it literally ‘tans’ an animal’s insides so that it cannot absorb food. If you are at all worried about choosing the right wood, there are many different toys and gnaw blocks in any pet shop to choose from.
Check Your Gerbil
A gerbil is a very friendly pet, not nervous like some breeds of hamster for example and seems to positively enjoy being handled. This is a real plus in terms of being a gerbil owner, as you will have many opportunities to examine it and make sure that it is in peak condition.
They are not very big, weighing in at around 3 ounces, but if you pick one up every day at least you will soon get so you can recognise if it is losing weight. Assuming everything else seems well – bright eyes, dry tail, not problems with scent glands and other obvious signs – then the teeth are very likely to be the problem. If the gerbil is reluctant to open its mouth or shies away when you touch its head, then a dental problem is certain to be at the root of it. Rather than distress the creature, it is best if it seems to be having trouble in the mouth, to take it to a vet where it can be properly examined and if necessary the dental work be undertaken without a further visit.