What is it?Rabbits are different from most other pets - their teeth are continually growing and factors such as diet, conformation and breed can mean that they develop painful dental disease or related conditions. Often this can be seen as overgrown teeth, eye issues, abscesses or upset tummies.
Why is it important?
Rabbits are herbivores, meaning that their diets consist of vegetation (grass/hay/flowers etc.). These plants contain silica, an abrasive substance which grinds down teeth. Their mouths are equipped to deal with eating this type of food and their teeth will grow throughout their lifetime. This can be up to 5mm growth per month and if not managed properly will cause severe issues.
A rabbit’s mouth has a total of 28 teeth: 6 incisors/front teeth (a front pair top and bottom and a tiny pair of teeth called ‘peg teeth’ behind the top ones) and 11 premolars/molars/cheek teeth (6 upper and 5 lower on each side - a total of 22).
What’s the risk?
Certain breeds are at higher risk - those that are brachycephalic, or ‘short faced’ such as Netherland Dwarves and mini-Lops. These rabbits are prone to malocclusion (incorrect positioning of the teeth when their mouths are closed), which can cause further problems. For example, sometimes the lower incisors go in front of the upper incisors which means the teeth don’t grind down as they are supposed to, and often become overgrown.
Inappropriate diet plays a large role in dental disease, although not in every case.
What happens to the rabbit?
In severe cases of incisor malocclusion the teeth can curl out of the mouth and cause painful injuries, this can stop the rabbit from being able to pick up food/eat.
Abnormal tooth roots can also cause damage to the nasolacrimal ducts (tear ducts - the tube which drains tears from the eye into the nose) which can result in tear overflow causing runny eyes and skin infections.
When the cheek teeth don’t wear down properly we see abnormal growth resulting in sharp spikes or ‘spurs’. These spurs grow towards the tongue and/or cheeks and can cause painful cuts making it horrendously painful for the rabbit to eat and may prevent them from eating at all.
Painful abscesses can form around the roots of the teeth in the upper or lower jaw.
How do you know what’s going on?
You may see some or all of the following signs:
What can be done?
Prevention is better than cure. In the event that something does go wrong, your vet may recommend a dental under general anaesthetic to correct it. Occasionally the front teeth can be corrected without an anaesthetic, but this very much depends on the rabbit and the vet.
Tooth root abscesses can be very difficult to manage and often require surgery and lifelong management.
Treatment for other related conditions, such as eye infections or skin lesions, may also be required.
What can I do to protect my pet?
Ensure that an appropriate diet is fed, which is high in silica to help wear the teeth - the largest part of the diet should be hay or grass: 80% grass or good quality hay, 10% fresh greens, 5% healthy treats, 5% of high fibre pellets (~1 tablespoon per kilogram of rabbit weight). Dried herbs/forage such as plantain contain highest levels of silica and can help with mild spurs on cheek teeth.
If you see any of these clinical signs described above please make an urgent appointment to see your vet for an examination.
A dental check with a vet or registered veterinary nurse is recommended every 6 months to pick up on dental changes as early as possible. Rabbits with pre-existing issues may require checks every few weeks.