Pet Factsheets

Ptyalism - excessive salivation

Dental disease is the most common reason for ptyalism in rabbits

Ptyalism, sometimes referred to as 'slobbers', is when the rabbit produces excessive saliva. This can be as a result of more than one cause and can lead to sore skin around the rabbit's face.

What causes ptyalism?

Dental disease is by far the most common reasons for rabbits to exhibit signs of ptyalism. Rabbits that have dental disease within their family history are much more likely to develop it during their lives. Those rabbits that don't eat large quantities of hay/grass or suffer trauma to the teeth are also at high risk of dental problems.

Some breeds seem more predisposed to dental problems than others. Those with flatter faces (notably lop eared rabbits) are more at risk of dental problems.

Dental disease is often painful as a result of the teeth not wearing down properly, and sharp spikes can dig into the rabbit's tongue or cheeks, leading to the excessive salivation.

Rarely, ptyalism can appear in rabbit suffering from a central or autonomic nervous system disorder - a disorder affecting the part of the nervous system controlling automatic functions including heart rate, respiration and saliva production.

Bitter or foul-tasting food items or medication may cause some degree of ptyalism, but this is likely to be self-limiting and resolve after a few minutes.

An item of food stuck within the oral cavity may also cause excessive salivation. This may not be inherently obvious, as the rabbit may still be able to eat normally.

Tumours/abscesses can invade the oral cavity. Abscesses are often associated to dental disease.

How will I know if my rabbit has ptyalism?

Depending upon the cause, rabbits that have ptyalism may be in some discomfort. Any rabbit in pain is likely to have a reduced appetite or may be completely anorexic. They also produce fewer or no droppings, may sit hunched up, become lethargic and look generally miserable.

Rabbits may also develop hair loss, especially around the mouth or dewlap (skin flap under lower jaw) or form thickened skin folds. Other symptoms may include:

  • Weight loss with a decreased interest in food or unusual chewing habits.
  • A foul odour from the mouth, discharge/pus from the facial area.
  • Uneven facial symmetry.
  • Nasal discharge.
  • Grinding teeth (bruxism).
  • Excess tear production.

How will my vet know if my rabbit is suffering from ptyalism?

Your vet will want to conduct a full clinical and dental examination, which is sometimes necessary under general anaesthetic to ensure every part of the mouth is fully examined properly. It may also be necessary to take radiographs of the rabbit's skull to assess the tooth roots and jaw if a tumour or abscess is suspected.

Can ptyalism be treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of the problem.

If dental issues are found to be the cause the rabbit will need a general anaesthetic to remove sharp edges on the teeth and potentially extraction of any problematic teeth. This is very likely to be a lifelong problem and the rabbit will need repeated dentals over the course of its lifetime. Dietary alterations, to increase the hay volume in the diet, are strongly recommended.

Supportive treatment is often required since many rabbits with dental problems are often anorexic or have a reduced appetite. This may include:

  • Fluid therapy
  • Syringe feeding
  • Pain relief
  • Prokinetic medication (to keep the gastrointestinal tract moving)
  • Antibiotics are sometimes likely to be needed

Tumours or abscesses are sometimes treatable with surgery, although this depends on the location and size of the tumour/abscess.

Food stuck within the oral cavity will need sedation or general anaesthetic to remove and to check for damage or infection.

How will my rabbit cope with ptyalism?

Dental issues are normally manageable with a change in diet to one high in fibre and roughage, and regular dental examinations so symptoms are caught before they become severe.

Tumours and abscesses may be surgically removed or manageable with pain relief, but sadly sometimes euthanasia is the only option for these rabbits since their pain cannot be controlled and/or their condition managed.

Rabbits that have ptyalism often get a sore/bald chin due to the excessive and constant saliva. It is important to try to keep this protected by applying a barrier cream such as Vaseline; this can help to protect the skin and stop it becoming sore and irritated.

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