Undetected dental problems in rabbits are a major cause of more serious illnesses which develop due to the pain and stress of dental/jaw disease. So even if your rabbit seems perfectly healthy, it is wise to have a “rabbit-experienced veterinarian” do regular dental checkups as part of your bunny’s wellness exam.
Healthy Rabbit Teeth
Rabbits are hypsodonts, meaning their teeth grow continually, throughout life. In a normal rabbit — The incisor teeth number 6 (4 top – only to are visible and 2 bottom) and are relatively short and chisel-shaped. The “cheek” teeth – Premolars (3 top and 2 bottoms on each side) and Molars (3 top and bottom each side) are aligned so that as the rabbit chews, using a side-to-side motion, the teeth wear against each other and this maintains an even, relatively flat surface. The incisors are used only for cutting the food into manageable pieces; while the molars do the grinding into fine “mash” that is swallowed and sent down the GI tract for further processing.
Rabbit Dental Disease
Dental malocclusion (abnormally positioned teeth) in rabbits is quite common, especially in the short-faced breeds and as a result of generation upon generation of inbreeding. Dental malocclusion often causes harmful, recessive genetic traits to be expressed, and one of these is the misalignment of the teeth because of abnormal bone structure in the skull.
It is primarily the wearing of the teeth (incisors and molars) against each other that maintains their normal length and shape — not against the items being chewed!!! Neither chew toys nor hard foods will cure this problem. In many cases, a veterinarian will need to anesthetize the bunny to gain access to the “cheek” teeth and identify any offending spurs and then with appropriate dental instruments, remove the overgrowth and smooth the teeth.
If the teeth do not line up correctly, incisors quickly overgrow and can become unmanageable “tusks” which either grow up out of the mouth like “skis” or curl back into the mouth, making eating nearly impossible. Management of this time of malocclusion requires either the regular trimming of these teeth – generally every 4 to 6 weeks for the life of the rabbit or these teeth can be removed surgically (extraction).
Both options have their associated benefits, “costs” and risks. Which option you choose should be based on a discussion with your veterinarian on what is best for you and your rabbit.
Regardless of which option you choose, you will need to make sure to grate or cut up fresh food into bite-sized pieces, since the cutting teeth (incisors) are not functioning normally/or are no longer present. Pellets and hay can be handled as before, without problems.
Molar (Cheek Tooth) Problems
Many rabbits who have mal-occluded incisors but even those who have perfectly aligned incisors can still develop molar overgrowth called “points” or “spurs”. These are sharp edges of the molars that result from uneven wear of the teeth. Spurs that form on the lower molar arcade point inwards towards the tongue, and are known as lingual (“tongue”) spurs. Spurs that form on the upper arcade poke outwards into the cheek and are called buccal (“mouth”) spurs (Figure 1).
These points if left unchecked can grow and begin to “stab into” and/or abrade the tongue and cheek. This can be very painful and will make eating difficult. Rabbits, being prey animals, do not readily show signs of pain. Your first sign of trouble might be something as subtle as a change in eating habits – not eating favorite foods, being slow to eat or simply a progressive weight loss. Sometimes the pet has a wet face this can be the result of constant drooling in response to the oral discomfort or due to excessive thirst/drinking in an attempt to ease the discomfort.
In some extreme cases, molar spurs can actually “grown” into the tongue or cheek, causing severe pain. There have been a few cases where a molar spur went undetected for so long that it formed a bridge over the rabbit’s tongue, preventing the bunny from eating or drinking!
Aside from the pain these conditions can cause your rabbit friend; they can have life-threatening consequences. Left unattended, the pain of dental disease can trigger a potentially fatal condition known as ileus/”gi stasis.” Additionally, there is a potential for severe infection/abscess formation.
Dental Disease and the “Gray Hares”
While your young/adult rabbit had not dental issues; dental disease frequently occurs as a rabbit ages. With advancing years, rabbits (like all of us) tend to lose bone density. When this happens (in the already-delicate bones of the skull) the teeth can begin to shift “in their sockets”, and this results in uneven wear.
Rabbit teeth do not have true roots, but the bases of the teeth can become infected when the teeth are loose, as bacteria from the mouth travel downwards along the gum-lines. Swelling almost anywhere along the mandible (lower jaw) or maxilla (upper bones of mouth) can signal an infection that requires at least antibiotic treatment, and possibly surgical treatment.
The base of the rabbit tooth is the location of the constantly dividing tissue that gives rise to the teeth. In some cases, the bases of the molars and/or incisors begin to extend farther into the jaw bone than normal (this is far more common in older rabbits). These “rogue roots” may begin to impinge on the tear ducts, causing epiphora (runny eyes). Sometimes, such “overgrown” molar bases may even puncture the sinuses or the eye orbit, allowing bacteria and food particles from the mouth into areas meant to remain sterile. The result is abscess formation.
In any older rabbit showing signs of ocular, dental or nasal/sinus disease or any facial swelling, you should seek veterinary assistance. A complete oral exam including head radiographs (x-rays) should be performed to detect the extent of the problem and the appropriate course of treatment involving topical /oral meds, surgical debridement, and regular oral exams and teeth trims.
Be an advocate for your bunny friend. — Watch for the following signs:
- Runny eyes – wetness or crusting on the face
- Eagerly going to food, but then acting unwilling to take it into the mouth
- Change in dietary habits – gradual or sudden (e.g., refusing to eat pellets, but happy to eat hay–or the other way around!)
- Unusual eating habits — willing to eat only one or two food items, and rejecting others
- Excessive drinking /urinating — this also can be a sign of kidney/renal disease, but rabbits with sore mouths will sometimes drink constantly in an attempt to soothe a sore mouth
- Weight loss
If you notice any of these, it’s time to get him/her in to see one of our experienced “rabbit” veterinarians. If it does turn out that your bunny does have dental issues, you’ll be amazed at the relief it will get, once the teeth are properly trimmed and in the right shape. We at Brook-Falls take rabbit oral health very seriously and make a “dental check-up” a regular part of your bunny’s Well-bun Exam! Call today to schedule an appointment.