If your rabbit had a toothache, how would you know?
There’s an old saying, “No hoof, no horse” — meaning the hooves are crucial to a horse’s welfare. However, I think you could equally argue, “No tooth, no rabbit” because of the importance of a rabbit’s teeth for good health.
What’s the image cartoonists most pick out when they draw a rabbit? Those long front teeth. These are the “incisors” and are used for cutting, snipping and stripping. In fact, if your rabbit has pulled wallpaper from the walls or destroyed your sofa, he used his incisors to do it.
Once the rabbit has snipped off that tasty dandelion, he uses his tongue to thrust it back to his cheek teeth. These are the grinding teeth that break the harsh fiber down into short sections that can be swallowed.
Obviously this is hard work for the teeth, and constant chewing on fibrous grass or hay wears the teeth down. But happily, the teeth love a challenge and just grow a bit faster. However, the opposite is not true. If the rabbit eats a low-fiber diet and wears the crowns down less quickly, those stubborn old teeth just keep on growing.
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Signs of Overgrown Teeth
Overgrown teeth cause problems. For one thing, teeth grow in both directions — up into the mouth and down into the jawbone — like a tree putting down roots. A bizarre quirk of biomechanics means that if the crown isn’t worn down, then the roots dig deeper.
This leads to pain, discomfort when chewing and tooth root abscesses. So, what other signs might your rabbit show?
- A wet chin: The “slobbers” comes about because his mouth is too sore to swallow.
- A creamy eye discharge: Those elongating tooth roots in the skull press on the tear ducts and prevent tear draining. This then becomes infected and leads to a creamy-white eye discharge.
- Matted fur: If the mouth is too sore to groom, the coat soon begins to suffer.
- Caecotrophs stuck to his bottom: Caecotrophs are the large moist pellets a rabbit produces that he re-eats. When his mouth hurts, he’s more reluctant to re-eat this vital source of nutrition, and they get stuck in his fur.
- Facial abscess: A tooth root infection can erupt as a pocket of pus on the face.
- Weight loss: When it hurts to chew, the rabbit isn’t going to eat as much as he needs.
This video shows how to check your rabbit’s cheek teeth and incisors at home:
Pelleted Food Is a Problem
The ideal food for rabbits is grass. It’s what their ancestors ate, and it’s what they’re designed to eat.
- Did you know a rabbit needs to chew for 20 hours a day to thrive on grass? That’s a lot of tooth wear and tear.
- A rabbit on pelleted food can eat a day’s worth of nutrition in just 20 minutes (which leaves those teeth growing).
How long a rabbit spends eating is what makes the difference between a healthy mouth and a toothache. Although it’s true that there are some genetic causes of overgrown teeth, the biggest culprit is feeding pelleted food.
As with so many things, prevention is better than cure. Grass is key, but if you don’t have access, then feed your rabbit good quality hay.
Do you think your rabbit has tooth problems? Visit a veterinarian comfortable with treating rabbits. If the incisors are overgrown, there are 2 schools of thought about how to trim the teeth back:
- Scissor clippers: Trimming back the incisors with sharp clippers is common, but there’s a growing argument against it. This is because overgrown teeth are often brittle, which means the tooth may shatter when clipped.
- Burring: This involves a high-speed dental burr, which whizzes away the enamel to keep a clean cutting line. A skilled clinician can do this with the rabbit conscious, and it’s a lot less likely to cause complications.
- Rabbits used to be classified as rodents until the early 1900s. Rabbit teeth grow throughout their life, as do those of the chinchilla. (For other members of the rodent family, only their incisors grow.)
- A rabbit’s incisors grow at different rates depending on whether they are on the top or bottom jaw. The upper incisors grow approximately 5 inches per year, whereas the lower incisors grow 8 inches per year.
- Textbook of Rabbit Medicine. Frances Harcourt-Brown. Publisher: Butterworth-Heinemann.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.