Have a look at the rabbit’s teeth in the picture above. What you can see are the lower incisors coming out of the mouth and almost touching the nose. What you can’t see are the upper incisors curling inside the mouth in a similar way.
Much further and any one of them will create a painful wound and prevent eating. Horrible! Why this happens is due to a fact that surprisingly few rabbit owners know.
How Rabbit Teeth Work
Like many herbivores including horses and guinea pigs, rabbits have teeth adapted to an abrasive diet. To counteract the way their rough diet wears down the tooth surface, their teeth grow continuously. These sort of teeth are described as unrooted or open-rooted.
In nature this system works well, ensuring that a rabbit always has healthy teeth ready for action. Imagine how good it would be!
- No cavities ever
- No problems with tooth grinding
- Chips & fractures that heal
However, you can probably already see some problems with having teeth that never stop growing.
Rabbit Dental Problems
There are only two main problems we see.
Malocclusion is when the teeth don’t line up properly. In a human this might just mean braces but in a rabbit it’s a lot more serious. Teeth that don’t grind against each other can’t wear each other down.
Malocclusion is caused by a problem with the shape of the jaws. It mainly affects the front teeth in young rabbits, like the one in the photo.
Overgrown molars, on the other hand, are usually about the food. That’s why rabbit vets nag you endlessly about an 80% hay diet. When the food being eaten is too soft, rabbits don’t grind down their back teeth at the same speed as they grow.
As molars get too long, the tooth roots get impacted in the jaw. The lack of grinding also commonly leads to the formation of painful spurs in the mouth.
Signs Of Dental Issues
As teeth or spurs get longer, they start interfering with chewing. They might also cause abrasions on the cheek or tongue. Therefore, the first clue that your rabbit has problems might be when they go off their food or start dropping food from the mouth.
Just to make things more difficult, a rabbit that’s not eating can still appear to be chewing (a common strategy in prey animals to avoid showing weakness). That’s why experienced rabbit owners also pay attention to body weight and the amount of droppings passed each day.
Treating Overgrown Rabbit Teeth
When rabbit teeth go bad you’re suddenly in a race against time to fix them. Each problem has its own solution.
Overgrown Front Teeth
Once incisors start growing crookedly there’s nothing you can do to stop them. Therefore you only have two choices:
- Frequent trimming
Trimming is done by a vet using a high speed dental burr, usually without needing sedation in a standard appointment. It’s quick, painless and cheap. The only drawback is that it needs to be done every six weeks for life.
Removal of rabbit incisors used to be a specialist procedure. That is, until some bright spark invented a much better technique. It’s still time consuming and expensive (we charge $500) but a lot better than it was.
Removal always comes with the risk that one or more of the teeth will grow back. However, most of the time after one procedure you’re done.
I always get asked, “how will he cope without the front teeth?” The answer is that if he was coping with them as abnormal as they were, he will almost invariably eat better without them. The only drawback might be having to chop up large food items.
Overgrown cheek teeth can be much trickier. Firstly, rabbits always need an anaesthetic to have them treated. Secondly, removal is no laughing matter.
Painful spurs can just be treated as needed, usually up to four times a year. We use a shielded dental burr, under anaesthetic of course. Most of the time, if a rabbit’s diet can be fixed afterwards, the problem goes away.
I only remove rabbit molars if they practically fall out in my hands. The rest I refer. It’s not just that removal is very difficult to do well, it’s also that it isn’t always the best solution. Read my page about rabbit lumps on the cheek and you’ll see why.
Over To You
When I think about the teeth of rabbits, which I do often, they remind me of the job I once had running a food packaging machine. It was a touchy contraption, but if you kept it properly adjusted and monitored, your day went well.
However, if you took your eye off the ball, it was only moments away from spewing out an endless stream of defective chip packets while you scrabbled for the stop button.
The difference with rabbits is that they don’t have an off button.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.