Many ferret owners are surprised when we point out tarter in their ferret's mouth. Ferret teeth and gums, like cats and dogs, are subject to the same disease processes. However, ferrets are a special challenge as dental patients due to the small size of their mouths, special anesthetic concerns and their attitude toward oral examination. Nevertheless, dental care is important for ferrets too.
Dental disease starts with gingivitis, an inflammation of the gum margins caused by bacteria that live in the mouth. Untreated gingivitis can progress to periodontitis. Plaque is 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 the molar teeth.
As the mouth becomes a bacterial playground more pathogenic bacteria begin to 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 bacteria can invade the bloodstream and can cause infections anywhere in the body.
Ideally owners will be brushing their ferret's teeth at home before any signs of dental disease are even present, this is easier said than done. Even the most tractable ferret will generally not allow this.
When dental disease progresses to the point of severe tartar accumulation, a dental prophylaxis, or cleaning of teeth, must be performed. Obviously, ferrets must be anesthetized for this procedure just like dogs and cats, but the veterinarian must be familiar with ferrets and their special anesthetic concerns. The tarter is removed mechanically from the teeth with a dental scalar; the surfaces of the teeth are then polished to slow down plaque accumulation.
It is easy to forget something as mundane as tooth care, but it is as important for ferrets as for any other critter.
Dr. Ellen Boyd is an associate at Animal House of Chicago. With a special interest in exotic pet medicine and wildlife, Dr. Boyd feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with animals in their natural habitat.