Rabbits have open-rooted teeth which continuously grow throughout their life. They have large, long front teeth, called incisors, and a good set of upper and lower molar teeth in the back of their mouths, which are used for grinding down and chewing their food. Rabbits also have two small, tube-shaped incisors (peg teeth) behind their large upper incisors.
Dental problems are sadly extremely common in Rabbits. Malocclusions: i.e., imperfect positioning or meeting of the teeth cause improper growth or wear patterns and so overgrowth of the incisors and/or molar teeth can commonly occur.
Overgrown molar teeth also generally have sharp points, or “spurs”, that can cut and damage the rabbit's tongue, cheeks, gum tissues. In the case of severely overgrown lower molars, worryingly these could also form a "bridge" over the rabbit’s tongue, causing it to be trapped and damaged. Overgrown back molar teeth can also in turn change the way that the front incisor teeth meet, and therefore also affect the normal wear of these front teeth too. Malocclusion of the front incisors will sometimes cause these front teeth to protrude out of the rabbit's mouth and they can then continue to grow at an angle to each other.
All these dental problems can lead to infections in the mouth and dental abscesses, difficulty eating, discomfort, drooling, pawing at the mouth, problems grooming, gut problems, loss of weight and general debilitation.
Rabbit’s teeth normally grow at a tremendous rate of 1 centimetre each month and in the case of an unopposed incisor, growth can be as much as 1 millimetre per day!!
The cause of Dental problems in Rabbits is multifactorial. However, a significant contributing factor though is their diet. Dental disease is commonly caused by a poor diet lacking in essential fibre. Rabbits need to be fed a diet high in fibrous material and roughage to naturally grind their teeth down naturally. 80% of a domestic rabbit’s diet should be Hay or Grass, (but not lawn clippings as these can lead to digestive upsets!). It is very important that your rabbit is on an advised proper diet, so that it chews its food well and wears down its teeth in the process of eating. A high fibre diet is essential to wear down their teeth and help avoid dental overgrowth that can lead to life threatening problems.
Rabbits Dental problems may also though have a hereditary or congenital component, especially noted in the Lionhead, Dwarf and Lop-eared breeds of rabbit.
As a rabbit owner, it’s important to keep an eye out for dental problems and check your rabbit’s general health regularly. Rabbits instinctively try to hide pain and discomfort, because showing any sign of weakness in the wild would make them a target for predators. With any disease they generally become very quiet and withdrawn. Symptoms of Dental disease often include: Looking dull and less active; A reduced appetite; Weight loss; A dirty bottom, as self-grooming becomes difficult; Diarrhoea or soft faeces; Salivating and wetting of the fur below their mouth; Teeth grinding; Weepy, crusty eyes; A runny nose.
Your rabbit’s treatment will depend on the type of dental disease they have but is likely to include a combination of dental surgery, pain relief, medications to assist their gut motility, and assistance to get them eating again quickly, and advised dietary changes and regular dental checks thereafter.
Overgrown teeth and “spurs” are generally trimmed, and “burred” down under a carefully monitored general anaesthesia, or the teeth are sometimes extracted. Your rabbit may need diseased teeth extracted if they are suffering from severe dental disease such as a tooth root abscess, damaged teeth, or if the teeth are growing in the wrong direction. Removing teeth from a rabbit is much more difficult than in dogs or cats, because of their long, curved roots, small mouths, and delicate jaws.
Following general anaesthesia for tooth burring or extractions, it is particularly important to get the Rabbit eating again quickly, to promote on going appropriate wearing of the remaining teeth and to keep the rabbit’s gastrointestinal tract continually moving and functioning properly. You may need to help them with this initially with liquidised replacement diets.
As a rabbit owner, it is important to keep an eye out for dental problems and contact your vet promptly if you notice anything unusual. Dental disease can be extremely painful and if left untreated can cause major health problems, including intestinal problems such as gut stasis and bloat. In addition to regular monitoring at home, have your rabbit’s teeth checked at least twice yearly by your Vet. Older Rabbits are more likely to suffer from dental disease, so your senior rabbits should be checked more regularly for any signs of dental problems.
If you are concerned that you rabbit’s teeth may be overgrown, or your rabbit is very quiet and losing weight, or showing some of the signs of mouth discomfort. Then please do contact your Vet practice to arrange a consultation for a thorough dental check-up and for good professional advice, as Dental disease may well be the problem.