rabbit needing dentistryBy Dr. Susan Garlinghouse

Most pet owners are aware that dogs and cats need dental care during their lifetime, but did you know that dental disease is amongst the most common problems in rabbits as well? Yes, rabbits need dentistry, too!

Rabbits are different from most other pet species, in that their teeth grow continuously throughout their entire life.  This is an adaptation due to the high fiber diet they eat in the wild, requiring more chewing and resulting in increased wear.  This constant growth is true not only for the front incisors, but the molars and ‘cheek teeth’ as well.

Outcome of Ignoring Your Rabbit’s Teeth

When pet rabbits are fed pellets and other soft foods instead of sufficient grass hay, there is insufficient fiber to wear the cheek teeth down as fast as they grow in.  As a result the crowns  (the exposed tooth) impact at increasingly abnormal angles.  The tops of the tooth start to rotate and sharp spurs develop.  As the upper teeth are placed slightly wider than the lower teeth, spurs on the upper teeth start to abrade the soft tissues of the inner cheek.  Spurs forming on the lower teeth cause abrasions and even lacerations of the tongue.  These abnormalities are more common in short-headed breeds, such as Netherlands Dwarfs and Lops.

Not surprisingly, these sharp points are extremely uncomfortable for the bunny.  Rabbits with developing dental disease will often start choosing softer foods that require less chewing, and may eventually stop eating altogether.  This in turn can result in ileus, in which the intestinal tract stops normal motility, a painful and potentially fatal condition.

Other symptoms of dental disease include decreased weight, facial swelling (an indication of tooth root abscesses), eye discharge, smaller fecal balls and “slobbers”—chronically wet fur and hair loss on the chin and neck.

But, My Bunny Looks Great…

A bunny that appears to be eating normally may still have dental problems.  Rabbits are prey animals, and tend to hide vulnerabilities until they are extreme.  Annual exams by a veterinarian experienced with rabbits is the only way to determine the presence or absence of dental problems.

Solutions

Correcting dental disease in rabbits requires clipping and filing down sharp edges with special instrumentation under anesthesia by a veterinarian experienced with rabbit dentistry.  In some cases, extraction of the diseased tooth is required.  Goldorado Animal Hospital is now offering this service.

While dentistry cannot be entirely avoided for every bunny, good dietary management is critical in minimizing problems.  Every rabbit should be provided with free choice, clean grass hay.  Timothy is preferred, but meadow, orchard, oat hay, or a mix of all of them are acceptable.  Even better is to provide a variety.  Alfalfa or clover should not be offered except in tiny amounts (less than 15% of the hay ration for mature rabbits), as the high protein and calcium content can cause urinary issues.

Pellets are not necessary if the hay quality is good, and fresh greens are being offered.  Any pellets provided should be timothy-based and not fed free choice—a daily ration of 1/2 cup per six pounds under one year of age is sufficient, and 1/4 cup per six pounds for mature rabbits. 

Wood blocks, fresh non-sprayed tree branches, cardboard and other “chew toys” for rabbits are good fun, and helpful for keeping incisors in good trim.  However, they won’t help with the critical cheek teeth—-ONLY chewing lots of fresh hay will keep those teeth worn down properly, and avoid or minimize more severe dental disease.