If Bugs Bunny had waited around for a response to his trademark question “What’s up, Doc?”, he probably would have heard the answer “dental disease”.
While Bugs’ teeth are famed for their prominence, they also have the much less well-known trait of constantly growing throughout a rabbit’s life.
Rabbits’ incisor teeth on average grow 2-3mm per week and their molar (cheek) teeth about 3mm a month.
This means it is imperative a rabbit has a sufficiently abrasive diet to promote the natural wearing-down process that keeps their teeth the correct length.
Rabbits require unlimited access to grass hay and a selection of leafy greens.
Commercial food “pellets,” while promoted for their nutritional benefits, should only be used in small amounts and in conjunction with the above.
They are soft and easy to chew, so do not wear down teeth quick enough to offset growth, without the addition of lots of fibrous based food such as grassy hay.
Rabbits have a total of six incisors.
They consist of two sets of upper teeth (one set is the peg teeth that hide behind the upper incisors) and one lower set.
In addition, there are cheek teeth, which consist of three upper premolars and three upper molars, along with two lower premolars and three lower molars on each side.
The molar teeth are for grinding.
These cheek teeth should only come in contact with each other when eating.
They have deep ridges that help break up fibrous plants and need to be worn down at a rate of around three millimetres a week to keep them in check and stop them growing.
Anything less will cause the teeth to become overgrown or uneven, which is when the problems start.
A serious consequence of being unable to eat due to dental pain is gut stasis, which can be life threatening.
On the straight and narrow
For a rabbit’s jaw to work properly, all the teeth need to be in alignment and correctly formed.
If the surface of a cheek tooth becomes overgrown, it can come into contact with either the inside of the cheek or the edge of the tongue, resulting in painful lacerations or ulcers – painful enough to cause your rabbit to stop eating.
Problems can also spread beyond the mouth: As dental disease progresses, we may see blocked tear ducts, sinus infections, soft-tissue inflammation and nasal discharge – which impacts breathing, as rabbits only breathe through their nose – and even bone destruction.
Early detection of such problems is vital to aid in successful treatment.
Severe dental disease can cause irreversible changes and become life threatening.
The importance of dental examinations and if required dental x-rays is to ensure your pets quality of life is maintained.
Signs an owner can look for include:
- Difficulty chewing, leading to dropping food
- Drooling from the mouth, combined with bad breath
- A lack of energy, leading to general lethargy
- Increased fur loss and a decline in good grooming habits
- Decrease in faecal production
- Cloudy eyes and/or fluid discharge
- A sniffly and runny nose
- Increasing reluctance to eat and drink
- Facial swelling and signs of abscess
Early intervention offers the best possible outcome
The team of veterinarians at Sugarloaf Animal Hospital are experienced in recognising problems and recommending treatment plans, in the attempt to correct or maintain a degree of dental comfort.
If caught early, dental treatment from an experienced exotics veterinarian can be effective in maintaining adequate tooth length and angulation.
A rabbit dental involves a day stay procedure where they are admitted into the hospital.
A general anaesthetic and “burring” of the teeth using specialised diamond-tipped dental burs are used to help correct them.
However, in more complex cases, dental X-rays and tooth removal is required.
All the cheek teeth need to be done in unison to promote the correct alignment.
That said, it is not a long-term solution.
The need for regular incisor burring (every six to eight weeks) will start to become stressful for the rabbit – and probably your wallet! Incisors may need to be extracted, which can be done with only the minimum detrimental effect to its well-being, because they are not used for eating hay or pellets.
They can employ their tongue to shift food to the back of the mouth, where the molars do the hard work.
However, as the front teeth are used to pull out dead fur, some help with grooming will be required.
Removal of a molar is a more complicated procedure due to a rabbit’s small mouth that reduces visibility.
The full tooth needs to be extracted, or there’s a slim chance it will grow back. Abscesses respond better to surgery than to antibiotics.
Aftercare is more complex and is likely to be extensive, with follow-up surgery often required, as well as more frequent dental checks.
Unless owners can commit to being attentive and strictly following specific instructions, it may be better for the rabbit to stay in the hospital for its initial post-surgical care.
Without vigilance, a rabbit’s chances of a full recovery diminish significantly. Obese or old rabbits can have more complications.
So as is often the case with our beloved pets, prevention is our best recommendation, through regular veterinary dental checks, alongside maximising appropriate nutrition.
Despite a good diet, dental disease still occurs as many other factors contribute to this common disease process.
Sugarloaf Animal Hospital recommends six-monthly wellness examinations and, if your pet is identified as having dental concerns, then the frequency of visits will need to increase.
Regular visits help monitor the appearance of their teeth so that, when appropriate, an individualised treatment plan can be implemented for your pet.
As the teeth are continually growing, it is important to act quickly.
If you have any concerns, ask your rabbit’s Doc – “What’s up?”
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