Squirrel Tooth: Everything You Need to Know
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Squirrels belong to the rodent family Muridae. The word "squirrel" can actually refer to any member of this family — including prairie dogs, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, and prairie dogs. But no matter what kind of squirrel you're talking about, their teeth are the same.
Here, we'll find out why squirrels have such unique teeth, and what they're used for. We'll also learn more about some of the dental problems squirrels can experience, and how rescue organizations diagnose and deal with them.
What kind of teeth do squirrels have?
Like all members of the rodent family, squirrels never stop growing their teeth. They're called elodonts, which means (literally) – ever-growing teeth. Their teeth are covered with a hard layer of enamel. Beneath the enamel is a layer of cementum, followed by dentin or pulp.
Squirrel molars look similar to human molars and follow an enamel-cementum-dentin pattern—they even have roots similar to human teeth. However, squirrels' incisors have to grow at a very rapid rate to keep up with their diet, so they look slightly different than molars and premolars (cheek teeth).
Squirrel incisors actually form a coating of enamel just below the gum line. This enamel is constantly growing, which allows the squirrel to grind off its front teeth throughout its life without fear of losing them.
Do squirrels have teeth?
Squirrels are born without teeth; their first teeth don't erupt until they are a few weeks old. The teeth of these first baby squirrels are deciduous teeth, which will eventually be replaced by adult teeth.
How many teeth does a squirrel have?
Squirrels have 22 teeth. One exception is the eastern gray squirrel, which has 24 teeth (two extra premolars). All other squirrel species have four incisors, four premolars, and 12 molars. Like all rodents, squirrels do not have canine teeth. Instead, they have a gap between their incisors and premolars, called the interstitium.
The front of the squirrel's mouth has four long, thin chisel-shaped incisors. These incisors are critical for clenching, and it is important that the upper and lower incisors are properly aligned. If they don't, then they can't rub each other and can become overgrown.
A squirrel's lower jaw (mandible) is actually two separate bones; on each side of the jaw. The mandible is connected between the two lower incisors by only one ligament. This may seem strange, but it actually allows the squirrel to flexibly move its lower incisors side to side for different tasks.
Squirrels typically have four premolars. Premolars are almost identical to molars and are often classified as "cheek teeth."
In addition to the four premolars, all squirrels have 12 molars. These teeth are not used for biting, but for crushing the hard food that the squirrel eats. Squirrels have powerful jaw muscles paired with huge molars. Because of the thick layer of enamel on the cheek teeth, they don't have to worry about wear and tear.
What do squirrels use their teeth for?
Why do squirrels have such special teeth? Well, for one thing – they love to nibble. Chewing is one of the main activities of squirrels. They have to gnaw if they want to get the food they need, or if they want to tear up bedding material. But the incisors play a more important role — self-defense. Squirrels protect their territory from other squirrels and rarely bite when they feel threatened or trapped.
Squirrels use their powerful cheek teeth to crack open the tough nuts, seeds and conifer cones they feed on. Once they've cracked the shell, their specially adapted molars quickly eat the meat or seeds inside.
Why are squirrels' teeth orange?
One of the most recognizable features of a squirrel is its bright orange (or yellow) incisors; but why are their teeth orange? Don't worry — squirrels have orange teeth to begin with; they're just white as babies. The orange color comes from the enamel that covers the teeth. The upper incisors are usually darker in color than the lower incisors. This is because the lower incisors sit behind the front teeth – which means the enamel on the front wears away faster, leaving a lighter color behind.
Squirrels can experience dental problems, especially front teeth, at any time in their lives, but they are especially prone to problems in infancy. This is because young squirrels have oversized heads, which increases their risk of falling, sometimes from great heights. A fall often results in broken front teeth, and if the teeth erupt crookedly back, it can lead to a malocclusion.
Malocclusion and overgrowth
Malocclusion (misalignment) of front teeth is the most common dental problem in rodents. If the front teeth are not aligned properly, they will not wear down properly, but they will continue to grow. This can quickly lead to a condition called "overgrowth," in which the squirrel rapidly loses its ability to eat and, if left untreated, may die.
Fortunately, many squirrel rescue operations exist to help squirrels in need. Veterinary rodent specialists at these organizations can examine the squirrel to determine if it has overgrown teeth and treat it appropriately. This may include trimming or even removing the squirrel's teeth. It's important to remember that dental care for squirrels should only be done by professionals; if you find a squirrel that needs help, don't try to trim its teeth yourself — you should contact a veterinary professional.
Squirrels may also have tumors in the roots of their upper incisors. These are called odontomas and are caused by traumatic injury (falls) or by chewing on cage bars when captive squirrels were young. Odontomas can be fatal if left untreated. Fortunately, odontomas can be treated by specialists if caught early enough.
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Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She has degrees in English and Anthropology and writes horror, science fiction and fantasy stories in her spare time.
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