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In the wild, guinea pigs maintain their teeth and nails unconsciously and naturally. They don't wake in the morning, look in the mirror and think, "Rats, I really gotta clip those nails and scrounge up some more floss." Instead, the forces of natural selection keep them in shape as they literally claw their way up the Darwinian scale every day.

The Tooth Fairy's Nightmare

If guinea pigs want to eat, they have to chew. All of that incessant chewing takes its toll, wearing down their teeth. Just in case anyone missed the whole "survival of the fittest" discussion in school, guinea pigs make sure that they will always be able to eat by keeping their teeth constantly renewed. Yes, that's right, a guinea pig's teeth are in a constant state of growth. This is what makes a proper diet so vital to your pet's continued well being. What happens when your guinea pig doesn't have to chew any more? You feed him a tasty diet of prepared foods, treats and fresh veggies, and the next thing you know . . . your guinea pig's teeth still continue to grow, and grow, and grow. How long will they grow? That depends on the environment that you provide and on whether your guinea pig is a candidate for orthodontics.

Put the Bite on Problems Before They Become Serious

In a guinea pig, something as simple as a skewed bite can actually be deadly. His teeth are his Achilles' heel, and if his bite isn't even, the teeth on one side or the other will not wear down properly. As the teeth continue to grow, he won't be able to chew his food, and he'll take in fewer nutrients. His appetite will gradually fade and he will starve to death, and although he is starving, he will show no outward sign of being uncomfortable. Of course, there really aren't any guinea pig orthodontists; you won't see your guinea geared up with little metal braces. But there are things that both you and your veterinarian can do to head off disaster.

As a start, examine your pet's teeth. You'll notice that while you can easily see the four incisors, his molars, which are deep in his mouth, require special instruments and an anesthetic to view them. That's where your veterinarian comes in. If your guinea pig's front teeth are overgrown or crooked, your vet can regularly trim them and stop problems before they start. In young guinea pigs, there may well be a congenital defect, akin to our overbite or underbite, which keeps the teeth from properly wearing down. Unfortunately, the most common reason for overgrown front teeth is a problem with the back teeth. Make sure to always have them checked, if you suspect a problem.

But I Did Brush!

There are many reasons for tooth faults to develop. As with humans, bad teeth may be genetic in guinea pigs. Bad teeth can also be caused by a Vitamin C deficiency, and that is something you can easily address. Since guinea pigs can't manufacture their own Vitamin C, you'll need to ensure that your pet gets his recommended daily allowance each and every day.

Over-grown molar teeth are a far more serious problem. The most common condition results when the teeth in the lower jaw grow inward over the tongue like a bridge, and the teeth in the upper jaw grow outward towards the cheek. This prevents the guinea pig from chewing and swallowing food.

Since veterinarians rarely receive training in animal dentistry, traditional veterinary practices offer limited dental services. Some vets will offer to cut and file the teeth back to normal length while your pet is under anesthesia, but the results from this procedure vary from doctor to doctor.

With the exception of the medical conditions mentioned above, prevention is usually the best cure. According to Ken Winters, D.V.M., "Guinea pigs are extremely low-maintenance pets. If provided with chew sticks, branches, hay cubes, old bread or other hard things to chew on, their teeth will basically take care of themselves. We have good results with the trimming of teeth in guinea pigs, but there are things you can do to avoid having this procedure performed on your pet."

Morning, Afternoon and Evening Breath

If you notice your pet has "doggie breath," the logical thought is that you need to clean his teeth. That's not necessary, but if you feel compelled to do it, follow these guidelines:

  • Do not use human toothpaste. Why? Dr. Winters says, "When we (humans) brush our teeth, we ingest a small amount of the toothpaste. It is not recommended to use toothpaste for guinea pigs because of the risk of stomach irritation from ingesting the paste."

  • Do not try to clean your guinea pig's back teeth. "You will only cause him pain and cause yourself frustration," says Dr. Winters. Instead, take a soft, damp cloth and gently wipe your pet's front teeth.

Painless Pedicures for the Squeamish

"Oh, man -- I bent a nail!" That dreaded burning sensation is running up your finger, slowly replaced by the incessant throbbing at the end of your injured digit. Sounds painfully familiar?

Your guinea pig may know that feeling as well if you haven't been paying proper attention to his toes. Unless he does a lot of running around on bricks, concrete or other rough surfaces that will keep the nails short, you'll need to clip them for him. If they continue to grow, the nails will eventually either curl back into the pad of the foot, crippling him, or else break off, sometimes causing bleeding and resulting in an infection.

You can clip the nails yourself at home, or if you feel insecure about it, you can have your veterinarian do it the first time so you can see how it's done. The easiest way to do this at home is with two "pedicurists," so that one of you can hold your pet while the other trims his nails.

If an assistant isn't available, roll your guinea pig up in a blanket or something soft, so he can't see and doesn't struggle. Turn him on his back and place him in your lap, positioning him so his face remains covered and his feet are visible. Then follow these guidelines:

  • Use either a normal human nail clipper or the clippers with curved blades sold in pet stores for trimming cat nails.

  • Be careful not to cut to the quick, which is the pink part in guinea pigs with white nails. As in humans, the pink part reveals how far the flesh of the toe extends, and the white part has no nerves.

  • If your guinea pig has dark nails, use a brighter light source to see the quick, which should be slightly darker than the end of the nail.

  • If you still can't see where the quick is, just cut the nails often and a little bit at a time.

  • If you do accidentally cut the quick and it starts bleeding, dab a bit of hydrogen peroxide on the spot to help prevent infections.

When all's said and done, your guinea pig will not only look spectacular, but he'll be a lot healthier because of your efforts.