The incisors, premolars, and molars of rabbits grow throughout life. Rabbits do not possess any canine teeth but do have peg teeth which sit just behind the upper incisors. The normal length is maintained by the wearing action of opposing teeth. Malocclusion (mandibular prognathism, brachygnathism) probably is the most common inherited disease in rabbits and leads to overgrowth of incisors, premolars and molars, with resultant difficulty in eating and drinking. When spikes develop, either along the tongue or cheeks, these can cause painful ulcers and cuts. Malocclusion can also develop in later life due to incorrect diet, especially one lacking in the correct calcium to phosphorus ratio or through trauma to the teeth or jaw.
What happens if my rabbit's teeth become overgrown?
A temporary correction can be made by burring the overgrown incisor teeth down with a dental burr and burring any pre-molar or molar overgrowth down. Cutting teeth with bone, wire cutters or nail clippers is not recommended due to the pressure it exerts upon the teeth. This often leads to them shattering, resulting in tooth root infections and abscesses. Filing of the molar teeth can also cause trauma, so these should also be burred.
Because malocclusion is generally considered to be inherited, rabbits with this condition should not be bred from. However, rabbits can damage their incisor teeth by pulling on the cage wire, which results in misalignment and possibly malocclusion as the teeth grow. This type of malocclusion or one caused by trauma to the teeth, may resolve by itself after burring of the teeth, but may take more than one treatment.
What problems can overgrown teeth cause?
One of the most common reasons rabbits are taken to a vet is for teeth problems. This may be for either incisor and/or cheek teeth overgrowth.
Dental disease in rabbits can cause immense pain to the rabbit since the incisor teeth can grow up or down into the opposing lips. Cheek teeth often cause painful ulcers on the tongue or cheeks, even possibly semi-severing the tongue! Some rabbits may show minimal signs even with severe dental problems.
Abscesses are a common problem associated with dental disease since the tooth roots can grow up into the eye or down into the lower jaw. Such infections are difficult if not mostly impossible to treat and even with radical surgery euthanasia may be the kindest option for the rabbit.
Runny eyes are another common problem associated with teeth problems since any overgrowth of the upper tooth roots can impinge upon the nasolacrimal tear duct, stopping tears from draining from the eye to the nose as they are supposed to do, so they overflow onto the face. This can make the rabbits face very sore and increases the risk of fly strike.
How can I prevent my rabbit's teeth from becoming overgrown?
The first way of avoiding inherited teeth problems is to purchase your rabbit from a reputable breeder who knows the history of your rabbit's family and has ensured that only those rabbits who have no dental disease in the breeding line have been used. Rescue rabbits will also have a thorough health check before being rehomed, so any dental problems should be picked up before rehoming. However, this isn't going to ensure that your rabbit doesn't develop dental disease, since the most common cause of dental disease is a poor or incorrect diet.
Rabbits incisor teeth grow at 2-3mm per week and this needs to be constantly worn down by chewing on abrasive foods. The best diet for a rabbit is one that mimics what wild rabbits eat. Unlimited amounts of fresh meadow or timothy hay and access to graze on grass provide the rabbit with fibrous and abrasive feeding matter which not only creates a side to side chewing action, which is perfect for wearing the teeth down, but also ensures the rabbit is getting a high fibre diet, ensuring the gastrointestinal system is kept moving.
On top of the hay and grass, offer a small amount of an extruded nugget food, of which there are several varieties available now to prevent the rabbit from selectively feeding. Rabbits who are allowed to selectively feed, and pick out certain pieces of the muesli style rabbit food, over-time become deficient in calcium and phosphorus which allows the teeth to loosen in the sockets slightly and misaligns them, leading to dental disease.
Allow your rabbit to have fresh greens daily and avoid mineral supplement blocks for them to gnaw on. These are unnecessary for rabbits fed a balanced diet and do not promote correct dental wear and can cause other health problems.
Providing straw/wicker mats, plaits, baskets, etc for your rabbit to chew on is another way of getting them to chew on abrasive materials and keeping them entertained at the same time.
Avoid feeding sugary treats bought from pet shops and excessive quantities of fruits. Very small amounts of fruit should only be given as very occasional treats.
It is important to check your rabbit's teeth on a regular basis, at least on a weekly basis, to ensure you pick up on any potential dental problems before they start causing your rabbit any discomfort. Whilst checking the incisor (front) teeth is possible, it is impossible to check the rabbit's cheek teeth without taking your rabbit to a vet, so knowing what symptoms a rabbit may show with dental disease is important.
What signs may my rabbit show with dental problems?
Symptoms vary; the rabbit may salivate more or have matted fur on the inside of their front legs from where they have been wiping the saliva. Weight loss may occur if the problem is allowed to go on for a while before treatment is sought. The rabbit may go off certain foods and favour others or stop eating completely - this is an emergency and veterinary attention must be sought straight away.
In advanced stages, the rabbit's eyes may discharge, and lumps may be felt under the rabbits chin, the rabbit may sit and grind its teeth loudly in pain and be uninterested in its surroundings. If abscesses have developed, then swellings may be seen or felt anywhere around the rabbit's face.
All of these symptoms may indicate a dental problem and your rabbit must be seen by a vet as soon as possible.
What is the long-term prognosis for rabbits with dental disease?
This really depends on the type of dental disease and severity of it.
Facial abscesses associated with bony structures (osteomyelitis) carry a very poor prognosis since it is virtually impossible to remove the abscess and draining it often has no effect as it will simply refill and it is hard to get antibiotics to the site at a strong enough concentration.
If the rabbit is pain free or its pain can be managed successfully, it is eating and drinking and has a good quality of life, then sometimes rabbits can live perfectly happily with such abscesses for many months/years, but if the rabbit's quality of life cannot be maintained then euthanasia is the kindest option.
Overgrowth of the incisor teeth can be maintained by frequent burring of the teeth, which is often possible to do on a conscious rabbit but may need repeating every 2-3 weeks. The incisor teeth can often be removed to solve the problem, but the procedure can be challenging as often the tooth roots are curled. If any tooth is left in it, it will regrow so occasionally the procedure has to be repeated. Rabbits manage perfectly well without incisor teeth!
Cheek teeth malocclusion may need regular dentals under anaesthetic, to burr off the sharp edges, often every 4-6 weeks, but sometime as long as 6-12 months between treatments is seen. The owner will need to be vigilant for symptoms. If the rabbit has a good quality of life between treatments and the owner is able to afford such regular veterinary care, then this can carry on for many years. But if the rabbit's quality of life is poor between the treatments or the owner cannot afford the financial commitment, then putting the rabbit to sleep is often the only option. It may be possible to remove the offending cheek teeth, but such surgery is complicated and most vets will refer the rabbit onto a more experienced rabbit vet if they are not confident at performing the surgery, which may be expensive to the owner. Furthermore, pet insurance will often not cover dental disease, so always check with your insurance company before embarking upon treatment, if paying for it yourself may be a problem.
Prevention is better than cure!
When it comes to dental disease prevention is much better than cure, as since most forms of dental disease cannot be cured, they are expensive for the owner and often painful for the rabbit, so always ensure your rabbit is fed a good diet and be vigilant for dental problems.