Dental problems are extremely common in pet rabbits. Sadly, once established they are impossible to cure and almost always require lifelong management and regular dental procedures. Not only is this expensive, but a lot of rabbits experience dental pain.
Ideally, we would like to prevent this from happening and, as ever, prevention relies on understanding why these problems occur.
The rabbit’s teeth grow continuously throughout life in order to cope with constantly grinding food. This applies to both incisors and molars. Overgrowth of just the incisors may occur (especially in young rabbits). However, in most cases incisor overgrowth reflects problems in the back teeth as well.
Molar overgrowth often results in sharp dental spikes piercing the tongue (lower) or cheek (upper), causing painful ulcers stopping the animal from feeding. As in all pets, if they can’t eat properly there will be other problems throughout the body.
The two major reasons cited for these problems are
1. Congenital problems- short-nosed breeds are more likely to develop problems because of the shape of the skull. However, the main reason is diet and with an excellent diet even sensitive breeds can be protected from dental disease.
2. Dietary deficiency – lack of either fibre or calcium (or both) will results in failure to wear down teeth (fibre) or soft bones (calcium). The former will result in overlong teeth with impaction of the roots while the latter will allow these teeth to move in the sockets thus altering the way they meet and facilitating entry of bacteria.
Basically, rabbits have evolved to eat grass! This will be fresh grass in summer and dried grass (hay) in winter. In addition they will eat weeds and opportunistically take fruit or roots as they find them.
Modern “muesli-type” diets were originally developed for fast-growing short-lived production rabbits. They are high in protein and low in fibre and minerals. Naturally rabbits love them and can obtain their daily calories without much chewing. Studies have shown that even if you give hay and grass with these foods, selective feeding by the rabbit will ruin the diet. It is therefore important to give large quantities of hay, grass and dark green leaves (cabbage, dandelions, etc) and top-up with a commercial ration (extruded diets are best as they have a higher fibre content). A maximum of 25g/kg bodyweight per day pellet should be fed. Many rabbits will not require even this amount provided they have sufficient fibre.
It is important to have regular dental checks. For healthy rabbits this can be once a year at the time of vaccination. At Anton Vets we also recommend a free check with the nurse six months after vaccination. Unlike the incisors it is impossible to see the molars without using an auriscope which is why it is impossible to keep a regular check at home. Even then it is not possible to see all the teeth and when we suspect dental disease we like to perform a full examination under anaesthesia. Treatment for molar disease involves regular trimming or grinding of hooks or overlong crowns under anaesthesia. This is, of course, stressful for the rabbit and obviously carries a (very!) small degree of risk.
And this is why we are so keen on encouraging a healthy high fibre diet and regular exposure to sunshine to promote Vitamin D production…a healthy set of teeth means a healthy rabbit!
John Chitty BVetMed CertZooMed MRCVS