Diseases and conditions related to the mouth and teeth are the most common veterinary problems seen in rabbits. Some may be preventable, and some may require occasional treatment, but some may be lifelong problems. When properly managed, however, many do not affect the quality or length of the rabbits’ lives.
The most common problems of the mouth are related to malocclusion, or improper alignment, of the teeth. When the teeth do not meet properly, they do not wear down evenly, and the result is overgrowth of the teeth. This can occur with any of the teeth.
In the wild, rabbits eat mainly grasses and low-growing shrubbery. The incisor teeth function to crop or shear plant material, and then the cheek teeth are used to grind the material before swallowing. This is similar to humans, who bite with the teeth in the front of their mouths and chew with the molars. Unlike many other species, your rabbit’s teeth continually grow. The constant actions of cropping with the front teeth and chewing with the cheek teeth keep the teeth well aligned and provide constant and even wear on all the teeth, preventing overgrowth. The normal rabbit’s teeth, therefore, do not require trimming.
Malocclusion may begin in the incisor teeth (front teeth), the molar teeth (back teeth), or both. There are many predisposing factors, including heredity, diet and nutrition, injury to the tooth roots or face, and infection. When malocclusion is present, the teeth continue to grow without being properly worn by the opposing teeth. The incisors can curl and twist, leaving the rabbit unable to pick up food.
If malocclusion occurs in the molar teeth, they can develop “points,” sharp edges that result from the uneven wear of the teeth. These points can cut into the inner cheeks and tongue. This is not only very painful, but also can lead to infection in these areas.
What to Watch For
- Grinding teeth
- Decreased food intake
- Dropping food
- Acting hungry but not eating
- Selective appetite for softer foods only
Veterinary examination can usually identify incisor malocclusion. Your veterinarian may use an otoscope (the instrument usually used to look in the ears) or another type of speculum during the exam to look at the molar teeth. Sedation may be required for complete evaluation of the molar teeth. Additional tests may include:
- Radiographs(x-rays) of the skull may be necessary to evaluate the tooth roots for infection, and to evaluate the nearby bones for signs of trauma or fractures. Sedation is required for diagnostic radiographs of the head region. Even the most docile rabbits will not stay still enough for the proper positioning for the required views.
- If there is suspicion of infection, cultures will be necessary to identify the type of bacteria present, and to choose the best antibiotic to fight that infection.
Treatment for malocclusion involves trimming (filing or clipping) of the teeth. The incisors can usually be trimmed without the use of anesthesia, although anesthesia is almost always necessary for trimming of the molar teeth.
Your veterinarian should clean any wounds inside the mouth when the teeth are trimmed. You may be instructed to flush or clean a particular area. Antibiotics may be prescribed if infection is suspected, but are not routinely necessary if there is no suspicion of infection.
In severe cases, the incisor teeth can be surgically removed. This is a permanent procedure and must be discussed with your veterinarian.
Home Care and Prevention
After a tooth trim, your rabbit may need soft food for one to three days while the mouth heals. Force-feeding or syringe feeding may be necessary.
Pets with a history of malocclusion are likely to need repeat tooth trimming. Some rabbits need veterinary attention only once or twice a year; others may need it as often as every six weeks. Most rabbits are somewhere in between these extremes.
Feeding your rabbit coarse hay for grinding of the back teeth can help promote normal wear of the teeth. Watch your rabbit’s eating habits closely so problems with the teeth can be addressed as soon as they start.
Feed your rabbit a good quality of rabbit pellet that is high in fiber. Fresh hay should be available at all times to encourage grinding of the back teeth. Stem hay is better than commercially packaged leaf or “hay cubes.”
Check your rabbit’s incisor teeth periodically. Ask your veterinarian to check the incisor and molar teeth any time your rabbit gets examined. The molars should be checked at least once a year, but preferably twice a year.