Teeth are one of the greatest worries for pet rabbit owners – they grow continuously and sometimes amazingly fast, so need regular checking and attention.
The rabbit evolved to nibble continuously on hard, fibrous material, so needs teeth that grow quickly to stand up to this heavy wear. They are ‘open-rooted’, meaning they grow continuously throughout the rabbit’s lifetime. The incisors at the front have a chisel-shaped profile so they keep a sharp edge, ideal for biting through tough plant stems, and the molars at the back are flat and broad to grind the food to small, easily digested fragments. The action of biting and chewing means the teeth help to shape and polish each other, so they stay in good order – neither too long nor too short, without spikes or jagged edges to cause ulcers in your bunny’s mouth. Provided the teeth do meet properly, a rabbit can keep a full set of perfect gnashers to the end of his days – my wild rabbit Coineanach never had a moment’s trouble with his dentition to the end of his eleven years of life, despite all his other physical injuries and adventures! If the jaws aren’t meeting properly, however – if they’re slightly out of line – then the portion of tooth that isn’t getting worn will continue to grow, forming a spike that cuts into the other jaw or the cheek – in extreme cases, an incisor can reach all the way up to a rabbit’s nostrils and dig in there!
A sore mouth can stop a rabbit eating – and without being constantly supplied with well-chewed food, a rabbit’s gut can come to a complete and fatal halt within hours. It’s worth taking the time to check a potential pet rabbit’s mouth before deciding to buy – if you can see the incisors don’t meet properly, you’ll know you’re buying into vet’s bills, trouble and worry!
To check on your rabbit’s mouth is fairly simple, for the incisors, but a little more difficult for the big molars at the back. A rabbit’s mouth is quite a narrow tube and it’s hard to see all the way to the back – especially as most rabbits will be quite indignant about having you ferret in their mouth! During your regular grooming routines, however, get your bunny accustomed to you just lifting their lip with your finger to glance at those incisors and they will tolerate this calmly. The incisors should be even and square, the upper ones somewhat larger than the lower ones, but meeting smoothly edge to edge. When you take your rabbit to the vet for yearly injections (provided you’ve chosen a good rabbit-savvy vet, of course!) your vet should automatically look in your bunny's mouth – they will have a special instrument with a light and a lens on a tube which enables them to inspect the molars tucked away deep in your rabbit’s jaw, although your bunny will probably still be very indignant about it! Provided all’s well, it takes just a minute to check – if there’s anything amiss, your vet is the best person to advise on treatment anyway.
What if your rabbit’s teeth overgrow when you’re not due to see the vet? How can you tell? You may notice your bunny dropping half-chewed food from her mouth, or dribbling after drinking or eating. She may seem lethargic or oddly picky about food, even treats. It may be as simple as noticing she has a wet chin when she nuzzles you (don’t be fooled into panicking about dentistry if she’s just had a drink, though – she may just have had a few stray drops of water miss her mouth!). You might notice more half-digested soft pellets left in the tray than usual, or your rabbit may forget her litter training. Basically, if anything seems out of the ordinary and there’s no obvious other cause, just check on your bunny’s mouth – it may be the answer to the puzzle. If not, you’ll be going to the vet anyway!
So what are the options, if your rabbit’s teeth are maloccluded or overgrown?
There are a number of options, which your vet will discuss with you and advise on. Most rabbits with slightly overgrown dentition can be trimmed – make sure your vet uses a drill to burr the teeth own, not clippers which can crack and craze the too enamel even below the gum line. For incisors this is a fairly simple procedure which may require just a light sedative and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. Back teeth, of course, are harder to reach and may need a stronger sedative or even an anaesthetic to deal with – in all cases it may take longer the first time but once the routine is established, your vet is just maintaining the teeth rather than correcting a problem. You’ll find out by observing your pet how long it should be between trims to keep him happy and healthy – most rabbits go six to eight weeks between tooth trims.
If the problem is too severe for tooth trimming – as in the case of my bunny Biscuit – there are stronger options available. Biscuit, for reasons nobody has been able to explain, suddenly started growing his front teeth at an astonishingly fast rate and slightly off-line in October 2009. In almost no time, his lower incisors were starting to reach up towards his nose, and his upper incisors were curling back into his mouth. He couldn’t get food into his mouth past the barrier of these fangs and I was liquidising food and squirting it into the side of his mouth every few hours to keep him going! The vet gave him a general anaesthetic and trimmed the teeth back carefully. Three weeks later, they were just as bad again and we moved up a step in the treatment stakes. He went in for another operation in November, this time to extract all his front teeth completely – and all the root connected to each tooth, of course, to prevent them growing back again in future. Rabbits deal with this radical surgery quite easily, surprisingly. Even without his incisors, Biscuit still eats hay and Excel pellets, enjoys a Ryvita and will scoff carrots and apples. The only difference is I have to cut his fruit and veg up into bite-size pieces and break the biscuits up for him. Once the food’s in small pieces, he can pick it up with his lips and chew it as usual. Long food, like hay and greens, he treats like spaghetti – start at one end and work all the way along! Biscuit was eating a little soft food within hours of coming out of the operation and within two days he was totally recovered and eating heartily of everything on the menu. His gums have hardened and he can still pull Bigwig’s fur through the gate separating them – although he can’t really bite her any more.
Even for extraction of molars, rabbits manage very well. The vet will remove both the problem tooth and its matching upper or lower partner – without the contact with the problem tooth, the other would grow unchecked and cause trouble of its own – and your bunny will quickly learn to chew properly around the gap.
If your bunny has a sore mouth due to overgrown teeth, you can help him to keep his strength up while waiting for that vet appointment by liquidising his regular food into a paste with some water, loading this into a syringe and gently squirting a little at a time into the corner of his mouth, just behind his front teeth. Aim for about twenty mls at a time, six times a day – because it’s soft and already ‘chewed’, your rabbit will be able to swallow easily. Make sure you don’t put the food too far back in his mouth and block his throat or he’ll cough and choke – see my vet section for more detailed instructions on mixing soft food for bunnies and syringe-feeding. Don’t panic - it’s easier than it sounds or looks!
Provided you feed a good healthy mixed diet, your rabbit won’t have tooth decay – that’s something we bring on ourselves with sugary diets – not need tooth brushing as some dogs do. The abrasive action of chewing hay and greens polishes and cleans the teeth, and because there’s no refined sugar in the rabbit’s diet, there’s nothing to cause plaque or caries to develop. If you feed your bunny on unsuitable things like honey or sugar, jam or refined white bread and processed foods, then it is possible that you’ll have to deal with a bunny who has bad breath or decayed teeth, but a caring, responsible owner will, of course, avoid this sort of thing!
So although rabbit teeth cause owners a lot of concern and worry, careful choice of rabbit, attention to diet and general health combined with regular checks will enable you to be sure your rabbit’s teeth are as good as possible. If you have the slightest concern, consult an experienced rabbit vet at the first opportunity and take their advice on treatment, but swift action and the healthy rabbit’s natural resilience mean that even a frighteningly severe case can be treated and your pet stands a good chance of going on to make a good recovery and to enjoy many more years of mischief around the house!