A guide to understanding rabbit teeth and dentistry
Rabbits can make excellent companion pets, but it is important to understand their needs when considering obtaining a rabbit. Rabbits have very different dentistry from cats, dogs or humans, and if this is not understood and taken into account it can cause serious health problems for your bunny.
What makes the rabbit tooth different?
Rabbits are herbivorous animals that have evolved to obtain nutrition from plants. The rabbit’s incisors (front teeth) are used to cut the food into manageable pieces, then the molars (back teeth) are used to chew the tough plant fibres. Rabbit teeth are very hard in order to grind the plant cellular walls to break them down. A large quantity of plant material has to be consumed to provide the required nutrients, so rabbits would normally graze constantly throughout the day. This means that the teeth wear down with the constant friction. To combat the ensuing tooth wear, rabbit teeth grow continuously throughout the rabbit’s life.
Why do we see problems?
Unfortunately, house rabbits are often fed diets high in concentrated nutrients and are not fed sufficient roughage. When rabbits are fed a diet deficient in tough, fibrous plant matter (hay, grass and vegetables), their teeth are not worn down properly. The individual teeth wear down at different rates, so the teeth cannot meet normally, causing the teeth grow in an even more abnormal pattern. Malocclusion is the term for teeth that do not meet normally.
Some rabbits are born with bad teeth; an under bite, an overbite, or other malformation. These rabbits need frequent dental care, and depending upon the problem, may never have a normal life. These rabbits should never be allowed to breed as their off-spring will inherit the problem. Other rabbits are born with normal teeth, but and develop malocclusion as they grow, usually due to poor diet as mentioned above.
What can we do about it?
It is important to ensure your rabbit has regular dental checkups as undetected dental problems are a major cause of more serious illnesses which develop due to the pain and stress of sore teeth and jaws. When problems arise, the rabbit can suffer an enormous amount of discomfort and pain. Small dental abnormalities often go undetected by the owner in the early stages, and quickly develop into major problems (due to their continuously growing nature). For example, incisors can quickly overgrow and can curl back into the mouth, making eating nearly impossible. Molars can develop painful hooks and points from not wearing evenly, that rub on the tender inside of the cheek.
Rabbits commonly hide symptoms of illness; therefore, lack of typically reported symptoms does not reduce the possibility of dental problems. Signs and symptoms associated with the teeth include; runny eyes, eagerly going to food, but then acting unwilling to actually take it into the mouth, general loss of condition, decreased food intake, anorexia, excessive grooming, excessive salivation and drooling, obesity, facial masses or swellings, nasal discharge, inability to close the mouth and gradual (or sudden) change in dietary habits.
Your vet will need to look at the front teeth and the back teeth using an instrument to allow them to see the back teeth more clearly. They will look for signs of uneven wear such as hooks or sharp points on the molars. Although some veterinarians will be willing to regularly trim the front teeth, this is stressful for the rabbit. It is better to file or grind the teeth down with a dental burr than clip them, since fractures of the tooth from clipping can travel below the gum line, inviting bacterial infection that can ultimately be life-threatening. If the back teeth need to be attended to the rabbit will have to be sedated.
If your rabbit has a normal mouth to start with and you feed them an appropriate diet, teeth problems should be minimal, if not avoided altogether. The best diet for a rabbit is made up of mostly hay (a daily pile the size of the rabbit), with rabbit nuggets (not muesli, as rabbits will selectively eat their favourite bits and therefore not get a nutritionally balanced diet), and a small amount of dark green leafy vegetable. Most rabbits also enjoy chewing on bark, so they will appreciate you providing them with non-toxic branches of some kind, such as an apple tree branch.