Malocclusion is becoming almost an epidemic with chinchillas.  We are getting more and more people coming to us with questions about how to deal with this problem.  This page, hopefully will give some basic insight into the causes and prevention of this sometimes life-threatening issue.

What is Malocclusion?
By definition, malocclusion is a problem in the way the upper and lower teeth fit together in biting or chewing.  The word malocclusion literally means "bad bite".  In chinchillas, it often is taken in reference to elongation of the tooth roots as well as spurs (also called points) on the teeth.

What causes malocclusion?
There are two forms of malocclusion, environmental and genetic.  Environmental malocclusion can stem from a number of reasons.  Poor quality pellet food, too many (or the wrong kind of) treats, calcium deficiency, lack of hay and/or chew toys, and cage accidents where the teeth are physically damaged (broken off).  Genetic malocclusion has a direct link to the chinchillas parentage.  Chinchillas who have malocclusion or have malocclusion in their lineage should NEVER be bred.  Never breed a rescue chin or one from a pet store, because their lineage is unknown.

How would I know if my chin has malocclusion?
Drool on your chinchillas chin, crumbled bits of pellets in the dish, sour smell from the mouth, weight loss, no interest in eating hay when before there was, palpable bumps along the lower jawbone, and watery eyes all can be, but aren’t necessarily, signs of issues with the teeth.  It is advisable to visit a vet experienced with chinchilla dental issues as soon as possible.  The best exam is performed under sedation, as it is very difficult to see inside a chinchillas mouth while they are awake.  It would also be wise to ask for a radiograph (x-ray) of the chin's skull, from both sides as well as from the underside.  This is the only way to determine if the upper roots are elongated and what the extent of the elongation is.  When root elongation is severe in the lower teeth, it can usually be diagnosed by feeling the bottom of the lower jawbone.  It usually takes an experienced touch to know what is normal and what is not, since the lower jawbone can feel a bit bumpy under normal circumstances.  However, just because you do not feel bumps in the jawbone, does not mean that the roots are not elongated.  It is important to note that sedation of a chinchilla, like with humans, is not without its risks.

How can I help prevent malocclusion?
For genetic malocclusion, the chinchilla may suffer from issues, regardless of whether they receive perfect care and nutrition or not.  If they are pre-disposed to have dental issues by their lineage, they will likely have issues.  However, this isn’t necessarily a death-sentence, as good upkeep and owners who educate themselves on what to and what not to do for their chin can extend their happy and pain-free lives.  Environmental malocclusion can in most cases, be prevented.  High-quality food, unlimited grass hay, strict limitation of treats, especially those that are grain-based, can go a long way toward prevention.  Loose hay is important for chinchillas as they actually grind the hay with their molars, keeping them in proper shape.  Hay blocks are NOT a substitute for loose hay.  Also, plenty of chew items that the chin enjoys can also help by keeping their incisors in proper shape.

Why is malocclusion generally considered “life-threatening”?
Malocclusion isn’t something that is always easily fixable.  Issues with irregular growth of the teeth or spurs (points) can be quickly repaired with dental work done under sedation.  Root elongation issues, however are not always so easy to manage.  If caught early enough, root elongation can be monitored and hopefully reversed with time and strict dedication of the owner to the care of the chinchilla.  In a lot of cases, root issues are caught all-too-late, when the situation is so advanced that the chinchilla is in chronic pain and is miserable.  Pulling of the offending teeth is an option, however, this sometimes leaves the chinchilla reliant on their human for food that they can eat.  There is also the possibility of severe infection setting in after the teeth are pulled.  Another issue, is if one tooth is pulled, and the one opposite it in the mouth is still there, the remaining tooth has nothing to grind against and will grow longer than the others causing further issues if it is not attended to on a regular basis.  Once the roots are so elongated that the chinchilla is miserable, the kindest thing is often euthanasia.  In advanced stages of root elongation, the lower molar roots can actually grow through the lower jawbone, and the uppers can grow up into the nasal and ocular (eye) cavities.  Chinchillas tooth roots are not fixed in bone, like us humans, they are free-floating within the gums and are continuously growing.

What can I do for my chin if he or she HAS malocclusion?
Proper and thorough dental care from an exotics vet experienced with chinchillas is first and foremost the best thing you can do for your chin.  Eliminating as much grain-based supplement and treat items from the chinchilla's diet as possible can also help.  A very occasional treat of something grain-based in a very small portion is ok.  We give our chinchillas a half of an unfrosted bite-sized shredded wheat biscuit (cereal) not more than once every 10-14 days.  Grains of any kind as well as seeds and nuts, contain high levels of phosphorus.  Excess phosphorus has been shown in the research and experience of the webmasters of ChinCare and their veterinarian, to actually lower the levels of calcium in a chinchillas teeth.  Switching to a high-quality pellet if you are using an inexpensive brand and offering unlimited (loose) hay if the chinchilla will eat it are also good ideas.  Feel free to email us for confirmation that your brand is considered "quality" and for suggestions.  Grain and herb based supplements are not necessary for chinchillas if you are feeding a high-quality, properly balanced plain pellet.  We also recommend that even chins that are not currently showing any signs of malocclusion, have their intake of grains very strictly limited to help prevent such problems in the future.  Monitoring of the chinchilla's dental health through radiographs (x-rays) done on a regular basis (generally once per year, but consult your vet for their recommendation) is also advisable.  We’ve also done some experimenting with our own chinchillas with calcium and vitamin C supplementation and we are starting to see some preliminary good signs with our chinchillas.  We’ve seen the progression of root elongation slow and actually stop, and in a couple of our chinchillas, we’ve actually seen some slight reversal of the elongation in a couple teeth!  This vitamin C and calcium supplementation requires strict dedication to making sure they receive it each and every day.  See the further reading article at the end of this page for more information regarding this experimental supplementation treatment.

Treats should be very limited, at a rate of not more than one small raisin-sized piece of no-sugar-added dried fruit per day.  We are referring to the small, "normal-sized" raisins, not the jumbo baking raisins, a piece maybe about the size of the eraser on a new pencil or a tiny bit bigger.  If you feel your chinchilla is "missing out", you can provide them with extra chews (a new one each day, perhaps).  Excellent wood chews can be purchased from Pet Products By Nature.  Apple wood is a BIG favorite.  We suggest placing a small order of perhaps scrap or a variety pack and ask for a sample pack so you can have something labeled with each kind of wood so you know what the chin likes and can be sure to order that in the future (each piece of wood in the sample pack comes labeled so you know what kind it is).  These are a much more wholesome "treat" than any kind of supplement or sugary goodie, and will actually do them good, instead of harm.  If the chin likes rose hips, you can give those as a treat as well.  They are not sugar or grain based, and they're loaded with vitamin C, so they're healthful for them.  The center of a rose hip has a hairy fluff and seeds, so they primarily eat the shell only.  You can get rose hips cut and sifted (which is just the outer shell), or you can get whole.  Rose hips, both whole and cut and sifted, are available at ForCHINate Chins

We are giving our chinchillas with malocclusion the following products:

Vitamin C  this is a mixed berry flavor and is quite tart.  The chins seem to love it.

Calcium either the strawberry or blueberry flavor.  The blueberry has a higher concentration of calcium, but strawberry seems to be a bit more palatable to the chins, although mine do like the blueberry as well.  Do NOT get the store brand of this product, stick with the LifeTime name brand.  The store brand has phosphorus in it, which you do NOT want.  This is calcium citrate, which is much more easily absorbed by the body than calcium carbonate.

To make dosing of the liquid supplements easier, we use emptied medicine bottles from the vet, which have been rinsed out well and labels removed.  Then the bottle is labeled with its contents.  1ml (cc) syringes used for the medicine that was originally in the bottles that have been rinsed out are what are used for dosing.  Usually once they get a taste of these supplements and realize they're good, they will gobble them down and want more!

The dosage and frequency we are giving these vary depending upon the severity of the issues with the particular chinchilla.  If you plan to try these supplements, we'll be happy to assist you with suggestions for dosing.  Two of our chinchillas like Oxbow Daily C tablets, and they each receive one per day, opposite the time they receive their liquid supplements (tablets in the morning, liquid in the evening, approximately 12 hours apart).  Be sure to store the calcium liquid in the refrigerator after opening.  The liquid supplements as well as the Oxbow tablets could even be given in lieu of a treat if they like them that much.

If you decide to try supplementing of any kind with your chinchilla, it is important at the very least,  to inform your vet that you are doing so.

Anyone reading this information who thinks they may have an issue with malocclusion with their chinchilla or has a chinchilla that has been diagnosed with issues relating to the teeth is welcome to contact us for more information about this subject.  We do not claim to be veterinarians, but we have had several experiences with this issue, both with our own chinchillas as well as some of the rescues we’ve taken in over the years.  If nothing else, we can offer support and suggestions.  We're happy to help where we can.  For those who are local to us (SE Michigan), we can offer referrals to veterinarians who are experienced with dental issues.

Further reading:
Thank you to ChinCare for permission to post this link.