By Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian Practice)
Unlike cats, dogs and people, a rabbit’s teeth grow nearly tenth of an inch a week, adding up to many feet over its lifetime. Wild rabbits accommodate for this continuous growth by chewing daily on coarse hay, grass and other vegetation that helps to wear down the crowns (or surfaces) of their teeth. Pet rabbits, meanwhile, may eat some hay on a daily basis, but typically aren’t offered the same type of vegetation and often consume dry, crumbly pellets as the bulk of their diet. Unfortunately, these pellets don’t have the same effect as rough vegetation and contain excess carbohydrates and fat that contribute to obesity and gastrointestinal upset in domestic rabbits.
Additionally, indoor rabbits are not exposed to as much sunlight, which contains UVB rays that are critical to producing vitamin D in the body, as their wild counterparts. Vitamin D enables absorption of calcium from food for proper development of teeth and bones, and a deficiency of this in rabbits can lead to metabolic bone disease, in which their teeth do not grow and mature properly, predisposing them to dental problems.
Fortunately, there are signs of dental disease a pet parent can keep an eye out for, as well as ways to keep your rabbit’s teeth healthy throughout its life.
Signs of Dental Disease in Rabbits
Pet rabbits commonly develop dental disease, and owners often are not aware of these problems until disease is advanced. With advanced conditions, owners may notice their pet dropping food from its mouth, increased salivation, selective appetite for soft foods or decreased appetite, overgrowth of incisors (front teeth) from lack of wear, or even discharge from the eyes due to compression of the tear ducts from overgrown tooth roots.
Early on, the only way to diagnose dental problems in rabbits is to have a knowledgeable veterinarian perform a thorough oral examination (often under sedation) and take x-rays of the skull to see the tooth roots below the gum line. An overgrowth of a rabbit’s incisors generally indicates that the upper and lower jaws do not meet squarely to wear the top and bottom teeth down when the animal chews – a condition called malocclusion. When a rabbit’s jaw isn’t aligned properly, owners may see their incisors get long and an oral examination will likely also show that the back teeth will be overgrown and may have sharp edges, making it uncomfortable for the rabbit to chew.
As the crowns of the teeth grow longer inside the mouth, the top and bottom teeth hit as the rabbit chews, putting pressure on tooth roots below the gum line and leading to loosening of the teeth and development of gaps between the teeth and gums. Food and bacteria become entrapped in these gaps, leading to infection of teeth roots and formation of jaw abscesses that, when advanced, appear as hard, bony swellings along the outer jaw that can get as big as softballs. This is, unfortunately, when many owners notice a problem, as some rabbits with jaw abscesses may continue to eat well.
How to Treat Dental Disease in Rabbits
Once a rabbit has developed a dental problem, it often requires surgery to correct the issue, and many rabbits go on to require lifelong treatment with repeated teeth trimming of both front and back teeth by a veterinarian under anesthesia. More significant surgery is required to remove infected teeth and dead bone when an abscess is present. Rabbits with recurrent dental disease may need repeated treatment with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and supplemental syringe feeding, and some require repeated dental surgery to manage, rather than to cure, the problems.
How to Care for Your Rabbit’s Teeth
While rabbits’ teeth do not need to be brushed of cleaned professionally like cats’ and dogs’ teeth, they do need to be checked at least annually by a rabbit-savvy veterinarian. Rabbit owners should also do the following:
- Offer your rabbit a high-fiber diet of hay and leafy greens to promote chewing and wear of the teeth.
- Limit pellet feeding to no more than a quarter cup per four-to-five pounds of bunny per day.
- Expose your rabbit to direct sunlight when possible (ensuring they don’t get overheated).
- Monitor your rabbit for signs of dental disease, like decreased or selective appetite, increased salivation, eye discharge or jaw swelling.
Alert your veterinarian right away if you see any of these signs. In addition, your veterinarian should perform a complete oral examination of your rabbit to ensure nothing is wrong inside of it’s mouth (and where you cannot see). Preventative medicine, combined with close attention to your rabbit’s oral health, is key to having a healthy, long-lived and pain-free bunny.
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