Rattie Ratz: The Tooth Hurts: Dental Care for Pet Rats

By Stephanie D’Agostino

Steph D’Agostino is a Rattie Ratz Rescue social media volunteer who loves hosting live educational events for the rescue and sharing cute pics of the rescue rats.

Anyone who is familiar with rats knows they are famous for their “chompers.” Domestic pet rats, like their wild relatives, have long, narrow, yellow-orange front teeth that are capable of chewing through wood, plastic, and that favorite shirt you left just a little too close to their cage. A rat’s front teeth are known as incisors, and these specialized gnawing teeth are very hard – harder than iron, platinum, and copper! In fact, the distinctive orange color of a rat’s incisors comes from iron-containing pigments in the enamel coating, which make their teeth extremely strong.


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Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

You may have heard the fascinating fact that rats’ teeth never stop growing. For the front teeth, this is true, and part of what makes rats such great chewers. Rats’ incisors are “open-rooted,” which means that unlike human teeth, these teeth grow continuously throughout the animal’s life.

Rats’ front teeth are surprisingly mobile, too – the bottom incisors can shift from side-by-side into more of a V shape to help with manipulating food items (or for biting!).

Best friends cuddling
Chew on This

You may have also heard that rats need to gnaw on things to keep their teeth from getting overgrown due to the constant growth of their incisors. This is partially true, but there’s a bit more to it. Yes, most rats absolutely love to gnaw on things, and providing your pet rats with enrichment items such as apple branches, pumice stone, wooden blocks, and roasted nuts in the shell are great ways to help keep their teeth worn down.

However, rats also keep their teeth sharp with a surprising second method: bruxing. Bruxing is when a rat gently grinds the front teeth together. According to Dr. Anne Hanson from the educational website Rat Behavior and Biology, “When a rat bruxes, its jaw is pulled forward, and its lower incisors sometimes grind behind the upper incisors (wearing down the uppers) and sometimes in front of them (wearing down the lowers).”

In addition to keeping the “chompers” in good shape, bruxing can be a sign of contentment or a stress-relieving activity, much like purring is for cats. Usually, you can hear a soft grinding sound associated with their jaw wiggling gently back and forth.

Out of Line

Keeping the teeth in good shape is a lifelong process for rats, and for most of our rat companions. This is something neither we nor they have to think about much, but sometimes things go wrong, and our rat friends need a little help.

Coraline showing off her misaligned bottom teeth  

When the top and bottom teeth match up nicely, a rat’s natural bruxing and gnawing keeps the incisors worn down. However, if any of the teeth are misaligned, i.e., not matching up properly, no amount of chewing will help. This is known as malocclusion.

If you notice your normally healthy rat losing weight, drooling, dropping food while chewing, or having trouble eating hard foods (like lab block/pellets), it’s a good idea to take a closer look at their mouth. Swelling of the lips or gums, bleeding, sore spots in the mouth, and sharp, crooked, or uneven points on individual teeth are all signs that things are misaligned.

If your pal shows any of these symptoms, take them straight away to a veterinarian that specializes in small animals to see if your rat has a malocclusion. Most malocclusions can be managed by regular visits to the vet for trimming. This is best done by a professional and attempting to trim the teeth at home is not recommended. If the problem is causing long-term issues, your vet may suggest extraction of the misaligned teeth as a permanent solution.

Case Study: Crooked Coraline

Sanctuary rat Coraline
Coraline is a beautiful gray-and-white rat with dumbo ears who lives with her best rat friend Ratalie in a permanent sanctuary home with Rattie Ratz Rescue. Rattie Ratz is a non-profit organization which specializes in the rescue and rehabilitation of domestic pet rats in Northern California. Most rescued rats only need to stay for a few weeks or months in a foster home before they are ready to be adopted to a forever family. Some rats have special medical, behavioral, or age-related needs that make permanent sanctuary a better choice for them.

Molly is an experienced volunteer who cares for many Rattie Ratz sanctuary rats in her home. Coraline and best friend Ratalie were originally placed in the sanctuary with Molly, due to cage aggression and biting. Through careful work, Molly was able to help the rats gain confidence, feel safe, and overcome this issue, and after a few months, they were no longer biting. However, Molly noticed that Coraline was having trouble eating. While the gray rat was resting in a hammock in her cage, Molly was able to get a closer look and spot the problem – Coraline’s incisors were misaligned. A nasty sharp hook had developed on one of the bottom teeth, and it was starting to poke painfully into the side of Coraline’s mouth when she tried to eat.

Coraline (left) and her best friend Ratalie (right) live together in a Rattie Ratz sanctuary home

Molly was able to take Coraline to the vet and have the offending bottom teeth extracted. Coraline had some swelling and discomfort after surgery, but this was managed with pain medication, and she healed well.

Unfortunately, a few months later a new problem emerged: poor Coraline’s top incisors had started to become overgrown. Molly explains that “her top teeth curved down and around, and so started growing into the roof of her mouth.”

In late June 2022, Coraline headed back to the vet to have the remaining offending teeth removed. Molly kept her on a soft diet of oatmeal, sweet potatoes, avocado, lentils, and baby food while Coraline’s mouth healed.

Today, Coraline shows no signs of the previous trouble, except maybe a slightly floppier smile. She loves to cuddle, explore during free roam time, and spend time with her best friend Ratalie. Molly shares that Coraline is “sweet and independent,” and devoted to her cage-mate.

Thanks to generous donors and the hard work of volunteers like Molly, Rattie Ratz is able to provide medical care to lovely rats like Coraline and Ratalie.

If you would like to know more about Rattie Ratz Rescue or find out about upcoming information/adoption events, please visit our Facebook or Instagram. If you are interested in adoptable rats or volunteering for Rattie Ratz Rescue, visit their website at www.rattieratz.com

Check out more animal rescue stories in our Pet Perspective section on Kings River Life, and the Pets section here on KRL News & Reviews. Check back every month for another animal rescue adventure from Feral Paws. Advertise in KRL and 10% of your advertising fees can go to a local animal rescue. We also have a special Facebook Group for our pet articles--join and never miss a pet article.

To learn more about rats, check out these great resources:

- Addison, W. H. F., and J. L. Appleton. 1915. The structure and growth of the incisor teeth of the albino rat. J. Morphol. 26:42-96.

- Hanson, Anne. “Rat Teeth,” Rat behavior and biology. 3 Sept. 2022 [date viewed]. http://www.ratbehavior.org/Teeth.htm.

- Hanson, Anne F., and Manuel Berdoy. 2010. Rats. In Valarie V. Tynes (ed.), Behavior of Exotic Pets. p. 104-116. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

- Rosales VP, Ikeda K, Hizaki K, Naruo T, Nozoe S, Ito G. 2002. Emotional stress and brux-like activity of the masseter muscle in rats. Eur J Orthod. 24(1):107-117.

- Schour, I, and M. Massler. 1942. The teeth. In Griffith and Farris (ed.), The rat in laboratory investigation. J. B. Lippencott Company, Philadelphia.

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