Message Number: YG2524 | New FHL Archives Search
From: RRC
Date: 2001-04-13 11:13:00 UTC
Subject: Re: Raw meat = tartar and gingivitis???

Just a quick pop-in before I run off to set with my son. He is doing
great, has a headache, and goes home today. I'll be posting more
regularly by the weekend.

I love questions which are so close to my MA thesis that I can answer
them with my eyes closed. You are feeding minced meat, which contains a
lot of calcium and phosphate compounds from both the minced bone
(assuming you include it) and the muscle tissue. Depending on the pH of
the food (raw meat, depending on the source, is slightly acidic), these
calcium and phosphate compounds can react with the saliva and form a
hard substance commonly called tartar (AKA dental calculus). I won't
bore you with the biochemical details because this stupid email program
makes writing chemical formulae so difficult and I don't have the time,
but it is a common reaction and results in a hard compound composed of
food residue, salivary secretions and several precipitated salts (mostly
calcium phosphates and carbonates). The problem is exacerbated with
drinking water that has a lot of dissolved minerals, or when cooking or
the addition of plant materials turn the pH alkaline. I've literally
inspected thousands of carnivore skulls, and taken tens of thousands of
morphometric measurements from the teeth, and this type of really hard
deposit is common only in humans and animals eating human garbage or pet
foods. This correlation is so strong that I can easily identify a wild
polecat or feral ferret from a pet ferret, as well as identify any
animal which tends to consume a lot of human garbage, such as bears and
raccoons, feral dogs and urban skunks.

Minced meats lack the type of sinewy or hard components found in natural
carcasses. Wild carnivores, when eating a carcass, have to use their
teeth as scissors, cutting through bone, tendon and cartilage, which
does an effective job of cleaning the junk from the teeth. In a minced
meat diet, especially one which is fortified with calcium compounds and
which may have a neutral or alkaline pH, there is nothing for the ferret
to cut; they basically swallow the food "as is". You have to remember
the ferret jaw is NOT designed to chew; it can only move up and down
because the hinge at the end of the jaw is long and set deep in a bone
"slot" which prevents side-to-side movement (like when a cow chews). In
some ferrets, this bone hinge has an additional lip of bone curving over
the hinge on the lower jaw, preventing possible disarticulation should
the ferret chew on something really hard. SIDE NOTE: this is why ferrets
are so prone to breaking teeth when chewing on hard objects. Ferret jaw
muscles are biomechanically some of the strongest among the Mammalia,
and with a jaw hinge which resists dislocation, biting a hard object
increases the force on the teeth, frequently resulting in chips, cracks
or fractures. Ferrets. like most carnivores, do not "pulp" their food
when chewing (like we do); they cut it into small chunks which are then
swallowed without further chewing (even though humans evolved as
obligate carnivores, we retained our grinding teeth, not so much because
of the plant foods in our diet, but because of the unique construction
of our throat. Because we evolved speech, we have to pulp our food to
prevent the food chunks from blocking air passages. This caused a
retention of the grinding form. Chimps swallow very large food chunks
compared to humans).

So, the point is, minced foods do not clean teeth, and depending on the
amount of calcium and phosphates in the diet, the food pH, and the
mineral content of the water drank (or mixed), dental calculi will build
up exactly as you describe. This is one reason why tinned meats lack
popularity; not only do they smell and cause smelly poops, but they also
result in some nasty teeth and worse breath. One simple solution is to
feed your ferret some kibble. The hardness and preservation quality of
kibble is related to the low moisture content, which is less than the
moisture content of fresh bone (bone averages about 12%, kibble is not
more than 10%, and tooth enamel is 3% moisture). Because most kibble is
larger than the throat opening, and it has a texture and hardness which
stimulates chewing, ferrets use their side teeth (carnassials, AKA
sectorials) to cut it into little chunks. This scrapes the junk off the
teeth. In nature (and at my house), I feed bone, which does the same thing.

But there are two dangers with kibble ferret owners should be aware of.
First, it is as hard or harder than bone of equal density. Obviously, it
is not as hard as the compact bone found in the proximal diaphysis of a
cow tibia, but ferrets wouldn't eat that anyway. Ferrets eat the crunchy
ends of the bone, which sort of looks like a sponge (it is full of iron,
fat and protein, nearly a perfect food). This cancellous bone scrapes
the gunk off the teeth. Because kibble is much harder than cancellous
bone, eating kibble grinds the teeth down at a much faster rate than
when a ferret eats a comparable amount of bone. The second danger is
kibble may scrape the debris from the teeth, but it is also a much
better food source for bacteria than meat. Microscopic particles of
kibble squirrel away into the nooks and crannies of gums and teeth, and
do much long term damage. How do I know? Because I have—at close
hand—more than 100 skulls of feral ferrets from New Zealand, a dozen or
more skulls of wild polecats, and nearly twice as many skulls from pet
ferrets fed kibbled foods. Additionally, I have seen nearly ALL the
black-footed ferret, polecat and domestic ferret skulls curated in USA
museums. The wild skulls have hardly ANY dental calculus, and even in
animals 3 or 4 years old the tooth wear is minimal. You simply cannot
say the same for pet ferrets, who commonly have caries, extremely worn
teeth, missing teeth, and commonly show reactive bone tissue at the
gumline (this is caused by a low-grade inflammation or infection;
gingivitis). Thus, the long-term benefits of a hard kibble diet is a
myth. It only appears to be better when compared to a minced meat diet
(like those found in canned pet foods), but it cannot compare to a
natural diet which includes large chunks of meat and bone. In other
words, it looks best when compared to a poor food.

Can I prove it? You can bet your ferret's butt I can! I plan to publish
these data as soon as I finish my degree, or find the time. I want to
put some of the jaws under the scanning electron microscope because the
resulting pictures are so cool and impossible to refute, but I could
just as easily do it with the data I now possess, using regular
photographs. And if anyone wants to bet large sums of real money, I need
funds to travel to New Zealand to investigate feral ferret lifeways to I
can prove ferrets will not go feral in California. I'll accept ANY large bet.

What can you do to reduce the dental calculus? The easiest solution to
is feed your ferret a dry food in addition to the minced diet, perhaps
rotating them daily. I tested nearly all the available ferret/cat foods
and found Totally Ferret to be SOFTER than most (using prescribed and
accepted methods to calculate hardness and density), so the damage to
the teeth would be less than with most dry foods. I have a dry food mix
which is approximately 80% Totally Ferret by weight that I leave out for
the ferrets to chow on when they desire (They choose a diet which is
about 70-80% natural foods, and about 20-30% dry pet foods, mostly
Totally Ferret). Or, you could use larger chunks of meat, forcing your
ferrets to expend a lot of energy to get them into sizes suitable for
swallowing; cutting the meat will also help clean the teeth. You could
include some bones that still have the soft ends on them, and allow the
ferrets to gnaw them down. You could test the hardness of your water,
and perhaps add some unsweetened lemon juice to bring the pH down to
about 6.5 to 6, which helps prevent the precipitation of the calcium and
phosphate compounds. Or just stop feeding a minced diet and start
feeding large chunks of meat and bone, and allow the ferrets access to
some Totally Ferret. That way, not only are you cleaning the teeth, BUT
the addition of Totally Ferret will not damage the teeth as much as some
other dry foods, and you can be sure your ferrets are getting all the
minerals and micronutrients they need, but which may not be found in a
young, cooked chicken.

Bob C

>From: "Ulrike" <ferretlove@n...>
>Subject: Raw meat = tartar and gingivitis???
>I'm at my wits end... I've been feeding the ferrets whole minced chickens
>5-6 months now and their teeth are getting worse and worse. I've been
>cleaning their teeth with forceps, I've been brushing their teeth and yet
>they get a real thick built-up of tartar, red gums, smelly breath. All my
>ferrets have this problem. I thought maybe because they had kibble for
>years but I rescued 2 ferrets that have had raw meat all their life and they
>had lovely teeth and now 2 months later they are getting a built-up of
>tartar and a thin red line around their teeth on the gums. What am I doing