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Dental Care for Rabbits

What do you think of when you think of rabbits? Maybe it’s their big ears, their love of grass and dandelions, or maybe it’s their big buck teeth? Whatever it might be, those buck teeth are one of the most important parts of a rabbit, and keeping them healthy is really important to have the whole rabbit healthy. Unfortunately, rabbit dental care is an area with a lot of misinformation, and many rabbits have poor dental health. Today we will be discussing the importance of rabbit teeth, rabbit dental disease, and how you can ensure your rabbit keeps its teeth healthy.

Rabbit Teeth and Gut Anatomy

Rabbits are actually a lot more complicated that they might appear from the outside, so it is worth discussing their anatomy and physiology in a little more detail first.

Starting at the head end, rabbits actually have more teeth than just the big ones at the front. At the front are the four incisors, two top and two bottom (usually, there are two extras on the top). There is then a large gap where canines might be in meat-eating animals, but not in rabbits. Finally at the back are the premolars and molars, collectively called cheek-teeth – there are twelve in the top jaw, and ten in the bottom. This makes for a total of 26-28 teeth that rabbits have to look after! Rabbit teeth continuously grow throughout life, at over 10cm a year; this means they must be worn down to prevent overgrowth (more on this later). The ridges on cheek teeth interlock to increase their effectiveness – most of a rabbit’s diet is rough tough grasses, which require a lot of chewing! If there is overgrowth, this interlocking can fail and their effectiveness is reduced.

Moving further down, we find the oesophagus, stomach and small intestine, which are fairly similar to humans’. However, the biggest difference between people and rabbits, where the small intestine connects to the large, is a large “secondary stomach”, called the caecum. In humans, the appendix is the tiny remnant of our ancestor’s caecum. Unlike in humans however, the rabbit’s caecum is crucial for digestion. Rabbits are special in that they eat their food twice! How this works is a rabbit ingests its dinner, and anything easily digestible is absorbed in the SI – tougher food will pass down the guts to the caecum. In the caecum, microbes digest the tough food further , making tiny pellets called caecotrophs. These are little soft green faecal balls that are packed full of the nutrients unlocked by microbial digestion. After digestion by the microbes, they are passed out of the rabbit, and consumed straight away. Now the nutrients from the tough food can easily be absorbed in the first stomach and SI. The little indigestible material that is left will be passed out as hard faecal pellets, the kind we see on fields or in our rabbits’ hutches. It is very rare to see caecotrophs, as they are normally passed at night and immediately consumed by the rabbit.

Overgrown Teeth and Dental Disease

Now you’re up to speed on rabbit anatomy, it’s time to discuss dental disease in rabbits. We mentioned earlier that rabbit teeth can become overgrown and cause problems – let’s discuss this further.

Rabbits require food that is relatively hard to wear down their teeth and keep them healthy. This means food like grass and hay. Food that is too soft leads to a lack of grinding, which leads to overgrowth – overgrown teeth no longer lock together properly, and as such, do not grind on each other as much. So an overgrown tooth will gradually get poorer and poorer at locking together (occlusion), as it does not grind on its pair. Some other causes of overgrowth can include congenital or acquired misalignment (malocclusion) of teeth, calcium and vitamin D deficiency, and other causes. But the vast majority of overgrown teeth in rabbits are caused by poor diet.

Overgrown teeth in rabbits leads to dental disease – this is a collection of diseases all associated with poor dental health. As teeth overgrow, the rabbit may stop eating, dribble more, have watery eyes and lose weight. The teeth can also damage the inside of the mouth and cause abscesses. As mentioned above, the problem gets worse and worse as the teeth become more overgrown. In advanced stages, teeth lose enamel, stop growing, break, form abscesses, and even increase the risk of broken jaw bones. Usually at this stage, the rabbit cannot be treated.

It is important to know that a rabbit stopping eating is actually one of the most dangerous symptoms of dental disease (it can occur due to other factors however). When a rabbit stops eating for a period of time, the guts stop (gut stasis) and food builds up inside them. In the caecum, microbes can overgrow and result in gas production. The guts become bloated, full of gas and dried out faeces, meaning the rabbit feels quite unwell and is even less likely to want to eat. Eventually, the microbes can release toxins that can kill the rabbit. If your rabbit stops eating and is showing any signs of illness, bring them into the vet immediately – gut stasis needs immediate treatment. Once your rabbit is stable, investigations can be done to confirm the cause, one of which may be dental disease.

Treating and Preventing Dental Disease

A rabbit brought in with suspected dental disease will have a full examination to confirm – this involves looking at the teeth and judging how overgrown and maloccluded they are, and assessment of the rest of the rabbit. After dental disease is confirmed, the rabbit will have their teeth addressed – mildly overgrown teeth can be ground down using special dental burrs. If the damage is too significant, the teeth can be extracted. A rabbit can actually do quite well with some teeth missing. Other symptoms of the disease can be treated, such as flushing the tear duct, giving antibiotics, giving vitamin D, and general nursing.

However, as with many things, prevention is better than cure, and dental disease in rabbits is no exception. As we already discussed, the biggest cause of dental disease in rabbits is poor diet – many rabbits are fed rabbit muesli, sugary vegetables and no rough forage. This leads to insufficient grinding and teeth overgrowth, as well as obesity. So, we recommend that a rabbit’s diet should be mainly grass, hay, haylage or rabbit nuggets – these foods are hard enough to grind teeth, and contain all the vitamins and minerals necessary to keep your rabbit healthy. A rabbit should also be encouraged to graze outdoors on grass, if possible.

With all the best husbandry in the world, rabbits can sometimes be tricky to keep healthy. We recommend, therefore, that your rabbit visit us regularly for a dental check-up. Here, we can look at your rabbit’s teeth and spot any overgrowth and the early signs of dental disease. Dental disease has a much better prognosis the earlier it is spotted, so regular checks can mean we can treat the early disease, and recommend changes to your rabbit’s diet or welfare. Some rabbits may just not seem to keep their teeth short enough, and for those, we recommend regular grinding by a vet. Do not do this at home, and NEVER EVER ‘clip’ a rabbit’s teeth. Vets will only ever grind teeth with burrs, and not clip: clipping teeth causes unnecessary pain, and can damage teeth.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully we have explained all you need to know about rabbit dental health, dental disease and how you can prevent it. Good diet, exercise and welfare are the biggest things you can do to keep your rabbit’s teeth healthy, and regular vet check-ups will make sure there aren’t any problems you’ve missed. Rabbits can be a lot more complicated to care for than they might appear, but with a little knowledge of how these bouncy little creatures work, we can go a long way to improving rabbit welfare and dental care.