Science Questions

Do any other species practise dental care?

Thu, 14th Mar 2013

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Kwesi asked:

Hi, my name's Kwesi and I'm from London.


My question is, are we the only species which practises dental care?


I don't imagine other species brush their teeth, though I'm bracing myself to be proven wrong. yet in the many documentaries I watch, the animals, particularly felines and canines seem to have perfectly clean gnashers. Are we humans missing a trick? Or is it our complex diet that necessitates stripey toothpaste?


Thanks very much, love the show!


Hannah -   So, with the exception of some species that have built up special relationships with other animals to help clean their teeth for them, humans are virtually the only ones that practice personal dental hygiene.  Now, why is that?  With the answerÖ

David W. - Hi, my name is David Williams. I work at the Cambridge Vet School.

Wild animals donít by and large get tooth decay and they donít need to brush their teeth at all. You might ask why on Earth donít they get tooth decay. Well, you might think itís because their food is less mushy than the sort of stuff we give to domesticated dogs and cats. They do get a lot of tooth problems. After all, pet owners give their cats and dogs dentastis and other similar hard items to chew on to try and reduce the tartar, and the tooth decay.

But look at wild otters. They eat soft fish and slippery eels. They're hardly going to crack off tartar, are they? But they donít get any dental hygiene problems at all. So, if the hard texture of the food isnít the thing preventing tooth decay, what is?

The difference is probably related to the amount of carbohydrate in the diet Ė petís diets, wild animalsí diets, and our diets as well. Carbohydrates thatís the sugars and starches provide a ready food source of bacteria in the mouth. They have weird names like proteobacteria and firmicutes and fusobacteria. If there's sugar in the mouth, then they can grow more and more, and give dental decay. Of course, all these fits with what dentists tell us about our teeth, doesnít it? Sugary drinks and sweets increase our risk of dental decay. So maybe, we should be like the wild animals and try and cut down on our sugar and carbohydrate intake.

Hannah - Thanks, David for that and crocodiles, already heavy protein eaters, are an example of taking their giant gnasher hygiene one step further, snapping up a loving relationship with the Egyptian crocodile bird. After eating their full, the crocodile will go off for a little snooze, relax open its jaw, and allow the plover bird to act as its personal dental hygienist, vacuuming up the scraps that are left in crocodile snappers. Everyone is a winner. The plover bird well fed and the croc keeps its winning smile.


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