Why are rabbit teeth special?
Rabbits are herbivores, meaning their diet is based on plant materials. This sort of food contains a lot of fibre (roughage), and rabbit teeth are specifically designed to cope with this. Unlike humans, rabbit teeth grow continuously throughout their entire life. The usual rate is an astonishing 2mm a week, or about 12cm a year! The natural abrasive effect of their diet as well as the way rabbit teeth rub against each other whilst they chew means they are constantly worn down, helping to prevent them from over growing. Dental disease or health issues caused by tooth problems are common reasons for a rabbit needing to be seen by a vet.
Why do rabbits get dental disease?
Problems can occur when rabbit teeth don’t wear down evenly. This can be due to misalignment of teeth (malocclusion) as a result of traumatic jaw injuries, infections and/or genetics
In other cases, problems with teeth are caused by lack of fibre or calcium in a rabbits diet.
What are the main dental issues that affect rabbits?
The main problems that we see with rabbit teeth include:
• Overgrown front teeth (Incisors)- These teeth can become very long, in some cases growing back into the lips. This is obviously very painful and can stop a rabbit from eating. In addition, overlong incisors can easily get caught on things and break.
Figure 2 Incisor growth, source RAW
• Overgrown cheek teeth (Pre molars and molars) – If the teeth at the back of a rabbits mouth don’t wear down evenly (usually due to malocclusion), sharp points can form on them (spikes or spurs). These can end up growing into a rabbit’s cheek or tongue, causing painful ulcers to form. They can worsen the alignment of the jaw and other teeth, leading to further spikes forming. This in turn can stop a rabbit from eating.
• Movement of tooth roots- if a rabbits diet is low in calcium, it can lead to their teeth being wobbly and cause the roots to move. In molar teeth this can cause root abscesses to develop. With incisors, it can press on the tear ducts and cause blockages.
• Pain- rabbits are prey species and as such very good at hiding how they really feel. You may not realise your rabbit is in pain until a lot of damage has been done. Rabbits that are in pain often suffer from ‘gut stasis’, whereby their digestive system effectively stops working
How often should my rabbit have a dental check-up?
We recommend bringing your rabbit for regular check-ups, even when you think they are in perfect health. This will mean that we can ensure their teeth are in good condition. Rabbits don’t always appreciate having their mouths and teeth examined, and it can be tricky for you to do well at home.
We don’t recommend that you try and clip your rabbit’s teeth at home. It can be uncomfortable for your pet and can cause damage to the incisors.
Will my pet need an anaesthetic?
Routine dental checks and some dental treatments can be carried out in conscious rabbits. For instance, overgrown incisors may be reshaped using a dental burr, which doesn’t cause any discomfort to your pet.
Some rabbits are less tolerant of being handled, and may require sedation to be examined.
General Anaesthetic to allow us to examine rabbits in a stress free and comfortable manner. Most rabbits will need a GA to enable us to examine and treat overgrown cheek teeth.
Occasionally teeth may need removing, (although this can be difficult) and this will only be done under a GA.
Sometimes it is necessary to take dental radiographs (x rays), this is always done under GA.
Even after dental treatment, your rabbit’s teeth will continue to grow, meaning that repeated dental check-ups (and sometimes treatments) will be needed for their whole life.
What signs should I look out for that might suggest my rabbit has a problem?
Rabbits are very good at hiding any sign of illness or weakness. Early warning signs that your rabbit may be experiencing dental problems include:
1. Weight loss
2. Drooling/wet chin
3. Loss of appetite
4. Change in eating preferences/avoiding certain foods
5. Bumps on their jaw
6. Sticky eyes
7. Smelly breath
8. Dirty bottom /difficulty grooming
The biggest thing that you can do to help your rabbit’s teeth to stay healthy is provide a good diet. Here are some useful tips on what to aim for when feeding your pet;
1. 85-90% of the diet should be hay or grass. If your rabbit is prone to bladder problems, the vet may advise you to avoid alfalfa hay due to its high calcium content. Timothy hay is a good alternative.
2. Don’t give ‘muesli’ or ‘rabbit mixes’- these foods actually promote bad dental health. Rabbits will choose their favourite bits to eat (Selective feeding) and ignore the rest. Feed a pelleted or extruded complete feed instead, which prevents selective feeding.
3. Add in raw vegetables – be sure to include leafy green vegetables, as these are a source of calcium and therefore beneficial for teeth. Good choices include broccoli, chard, brussel sprouts, celery leaves and endives. Some leafy greens are very high in calcium which may be detrimental to rabbits known to have bladder or urinary issues. Speak to your vet for more advice
If you would like to discuss your rabbits dental health or diet further, why not book a free health care check for them during Rabbit Awareness Week. Call us on 01437 760111 to find out more.