Dental problems are by far and away the most common health issue in pet rabbits. Here we discuss the reasons why, and what you can expect if dental treatment is recommended by your vet.

How are rabbit teeth different to ours?

Our teeth, like those of cats and dogs, have crowns (the part of the tooth we can see) and roots (the part hidden within the gum and anchoring the tooth in place). Once the permanent (adult) teeth come in we have the same crowns for life.

Rabbits are designed to spend all day everyday munching on tough fibrous plants. This can take quite some work to grind up before swallowing. Imagine if their teeth were like ours. This diet would wear them down pretty quickly and soon there would be no crown left! So rabbits have teeth that grow continuously their whole life through, with new tooth growing down to replace what’s worn away. They don’t have crowns and roots the same as ours. The only teeth we can easily see are the four sharp incisors at the front of the mouth – two at the top (with two smaller ‘peg’ teeth behind) and two at the bottom. The rest of the teeth (another 22!) are tucked away right inside the mouth and are referred to as the cheek teeth. 

Why do rabbits suffer from dental problems?

We have the same crowns all life long, so if we don’t look after them with regular toothbrushing, plaque and tartar quickly build up causing dental problems. As the surfaces of rabbits’ teeth are being constantly worn away and replaced by new tooth growing down, plaque and tartar don’t get the chance to build up on their teeth. So why are dental problems so common in rabbits? 

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For some rabbits it can be due to genetics. For example, dwarf breeds are prone to having a lower jaw that’s too long and sticks out below the top jaw. The incisors in the lower jaw have nothing to grind against to wear them down so grow far too long. 

However the most common dental problem in rabbits is what we call acquired dental disease, meaning that although their teeth started off normal something has happened that has resulted in them becoming abnormal. This could be trauma resulting in tooth fracture, or, most often, an unbalanced diet. 

Lots of fibrous food is needed to keep wearing the teeth down. Inadequate fibre intake results in overlong teeth, as they continue to grow despite not being worn down. There’s only so much space inside a rabbit’s mouth so the teeth may start to become curved to find room to grow. This results in sharp spurs developing because the top and bottom teeth no longer align correctly, and these spurs can cut and lacerate the cheeks and tongue making eating extremely painful. 

Lack of space also results in the teeth being pushed back too far into the skull and lower jaw, resulting in painful infection of the tooth and surrounding bone. This can extend to huge abscesses appearing on the face.

What are the signs my rabbit might have a dental problem?

Signs of dental pain may include drooling, runny eyes (due to teeth squashing the tear duct), weight loss, and changes in eating preferences – for example, preferring soft food that’s less painful to chew. However despite dental problems being very common, they can be difficult to detect. This is because rabbits are prey species. 

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If a wild rabbit showed signs of being unwell, it would quickly be noticed by a predator. So rabbits will do everything they can to hide signs of pain or ill health, and often only show signs of dental problems by the time the problem is very advanced. This means that regular dental checks by your vet are vital so that problems can be picked up early on. 

However it’s difficult to fully assess the cheek teeth of a bunny that may not be feeling terribly co-operative! It might be possible to look inside your rabbit’s mouth using a narrow cone with a beam of light shining through it. However if your rabbit has symptoms that could be due to dental problems, or has had dental problems in the past, a general anaesthetic will usually be recommended to allow a thorough examination. 

What happens during a ‘dental’?

Under general anaesthesia a special instrument can be used to hold your sleeping rabbit’s mouth open and another used to push the cheeks away from the teeth. This allows your vet to thoroughly examine all the surfaces of your rabbit’s teeth, as well as their cheeks and tongue. Some veterinary practices may have a special tiny camera they can insert into the mouth to get an ever better look. Any pointy spurs can be rasped down to make your pet feel more comfortable. A probe will be used to check for any wobbliness, and wobbly teeth extracted. Radiographs (x-rays) of your rabbit’s teeth and skull may be taken to determine the extent of any problems detected.

What about tooth clipping?

Historically it was common practice for rabbits with overlong incisors to have these teeth ‘clipped’ short. This often resulted in the tooth shattering, leaving sharp points and exposing the sensitive inside part of the tooth. If your vet notes that your rabbit’s incisors are too long they may be able to regularly shorten them using an electric burr – some rabbits will tolerate this while conscious – or they may recommend extraction of the tooth to solve the problem. 

How often will my rabbit need a dental?

Unfortunately, many of the dental problems we see in pet rabbits are lifelong. Once teeth become curved they will never return to their normal shape. This means that dental treatment is often palliative. Removal of spurs improves comfort but the spurs reform as the teeth continue to grow and dental treatment may be required every few months.

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How can I reduce the risk of my rabbit developing dental problems?

The most important step you can take is to feed them an appropriate fibre-rich diet. The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund have brilliant advice on diet (and all things bunny) on their website. After all, prevention is better (and often cheaper) than cure!

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