The Tooth Truth

Retailers can help educate the owners of rodents and rabbits about why chew toys are actually necessary for their pet’s well-being.


Both rabbits and rodents, which comprise the vast majority of all small pets, have a unique tooth structure. Their incisors grow continuously throughout the animal’s life. Rabbits have eight incisors, four top and bottom, while rodents have only four incisors, two and two. These teeth are used to bite off pieces of food before they are chewed up by the molars. Rodents are well known for their ability and proclivity to gnaw, and most rodent owners understand that their pets need chew toys. However, there is much confusion about exactly why these animals need to chew. 

It is a myth that rodents and rabbits must have hard toys or food to chew on in order to keep their teeth from overgrowing. The fact is that nature has designed their incisors to grind against each other to keep them the proper length and sharpness. When these animals are quiet and contented, you can often hear them grinding their teeth. It is only when there is disease of the incisors or jaw that the teeth overgrow. The most common cause of overgrown incisors is malocclusion, when the top and bottom teeth do not properly meet or occlude. Malocclusion can be congenital or caused by an accident. A tooth abscess, tumor or some other disease of the jaw can also cause overgrown incisors. 

Often, owners of a pet with malocclusion notice that the animal is no longer eating their hard food, so they conclude that the overgrown teeth are a result of the pet’s failure to chew on the food. In fact, it is the other way around; the malocclusion causes the animal’s inability to eat hard food. Fortunately, with malocclusion, periodic trimming of the teeth, and often special food, can help the animal lead a normal life.

There is also some confusion, even among veterinarians, about the molars of these animals. The molars of herbivores, including rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus and prairie dogs, grow continuously like their incisors. The molars of omnivorous rodents do not.

A Psychological Need
All this does not mean that rodents and rabbits don’t need chew toys. Although there is no physical need for chew toys, they do provide good exercise for the jaws and help keep the teeth at their proper length. But more importantly, rabbits and rodents have a psychological need to chew. Chew toys provide an outlet for the animal’s instinctive desire to gnaw on objects. Providing proper chew toys can help redirect the animal’s desire to chew on inappropriate items, such as furnishings. However, pet owners do need to understand that chew toys cannot completely prevent unwanted chewing, and valuable and dangerous items must be kept out of an animal’s reach.

There are a wide variety of chew toys available, made of any number of different materials. While some customers look for natural products, others are attracted to bright colors and entertaining shapes. A customer is likely to be attracted to mainly one or the other category, with children and parents of children most attracted to colored wood chews and those cut into fun shapes. While displays of chew toys often mix the different styles, retailers should consider separating them into sections to help shoppers find the items in which they are most interested. When chew-toy styles are all mixed together, customers can miss seeing some of the products.

Because there is a large selection of brightly colored chew toys, retailers can take advantage of the principle of color blocking in displays. Placing all the colored toys together can create a dramatic display that really catches the eye. This could be used in an endcap display or along part of a wall. A wall display could even include small animal treats as well as chew toys in one big banquet. In the same way, natural chew toys and treats can be segregated into their own area, with signs emphasizing the natural aspect of the products.

A good feature to look for in chew toys is a hanger. Keeping the toy up off the floor not only helps keep it clean, it also provides more fun. The pet can pull and tug on the toy as well as chew on it. Manufacturers might consider adding a spring to hanging chew toys to give the product more motion and action.

Rodents are such good chewers that a fun treat for them is a nut in the shell. The nuts that work best for this are hazelnuts (filberts) and Brazil nuts. The shells are hard and thick enough to provide a challenge, giving the animal a fair amount of exercise to balance the calories in the nuts. In comparison, almonds and pecans offer little challenge. Although the shell of the Brazil nut might seem too tough for little rodents, the triangular shape actually gives them a good grip, while most walnuts tend to be too large and round for pet rodents—although rats can usually manage to open the smaller ones. Retailers should consider selling them in bulk next to the dog biscuits, which are also good treats for rodents.

Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.


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