Rabbits are prone to dental issues, but it’s often easy to miss the signs. So we’ve rounded up expert advice on how to maintain your rabbits’ dental health and spot the symptoms when there’s a problem.
The tooth of the matter
However much loving care you give your bunnies, if their teeth aren’t in good condition, their health and wellbeing will be affected – and according to the Rabbit Welfare Association, over half of the rabbits they see have dental problems. ‘Owners often don’t realise how crucial it is to look after their rabbits’ teeth, or the wide range of painful conditions that tooth problems can cause,’ says Richard Saunders, vet and adviser to the Rabbit Welfare Association. The good news? With a little care, your rabbits’ dental health can be well managed and issues can be prevented. These four simple steps will help:
1. Understand the causes
Unlike cats and dogs, dental ill health in rabbits is less likely to be the result of decay or gum disease. Instead, it’s rabbits’ naturally fast-growing teeth combined with the wrong diet that causes problems.
Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously (about 2mm every week), and they’re designed to be worn down to the right length by grinding away at food. But this means that if they don’t get the correct diet – one that is abrasive and rich in fibre – their teeth will become too long and could cause painful problems.
If your rabbits’ incisors – the front teeth – do become overgrown, they won’t meet the bottom teeth properly, causing a condition called malocclusion. The back teeth, or molars, can become misshapen, sharp and pointed, and then rub against and cut the tongue. Malocclusion is one of the most common problems vets see, and it can have the knock-on effect of putting pressure on the other teeth, causing them to become impacted, inflamed and even leading to life-threatening abscesses.
2. Prevent problems
‘The number one way to ensure your rabbits’ teeth stay healthy is to feed the right diet,’ Richard says. ‘They need mostly hay, and some leafy vegetables, to keep their teeth in good condition. Dry foods and pellets don’t wear their teeth down, and we don’t recommend “muesli&rdguo; type foods at all because rabbits often just pick out the bits they like so don’t get the full range of nutrients they need.’ This is important, as a nutrient deficiency could lead to a calcium and phosphorous imbalance, which can contribute to poor dental health.
Our visual guide to healthy eating, can help you ensure your bunnies get the right kinds of food to promote their dental health and general wellbeing.
3. Spot the signs
But how can you tell if your bunnies already have tooth troubles? In dogs and cats, oral problems can often be detected through their smelly breath, but the signs in your rabbits will be more subtle and you’ll need to pay careful attention to spot the symptoms.
Signs to look out for include your bunnies losing weight, not grooming themselves and falling prey to fly strike (rabbits use their teeth for frequent wash-and-brush-ups and to get rid of hair). You should also look out for drooling, wetness on the front paws from cleaning their mouths, and going off hay and grass because it’s too painful to chew. In fact, if a rabbit seems not to ‘like’ hay it’s almost certainly due to tooth problems and an inability to chew properly.
Also look out for discharge from your bunnies’ eyes, as misaligned teeth can change the shape of a rabbit’s delicate skull – which can block the tear ducts and lead to a build-up of gunk.
4. Keep checking
You should check your rabbits’ front teeth every week. They should be creamy white, smooth except for a vertical line down the centre of the top ones, and end in a neat chisel-shaped bite. Consult your vet immediately if you have any concerns – he or she can smooth off any sharp spurs and, in some cases, trim front teeth that have become too long. (Never attempt to trim them yourself.)
‘You can only see your rabbits’ front teeth, but vets can check the back ones, too,’ says Richard. ‘If they suspect any problems they will briefly anaesthetise your pet so they can open the mouth wider, and take X-rays to check for damage in the jaw. You don’t need to clean your rabbits’ teeth, but they do need a little day-to-day help with dental health. Give your bunnies something extra to chew to help them wear their teeth down naturally. Small, fresh branches from fruit trees (such as those suggested here) are ideal, but a daily diet of hay and greens is the best way to keep teeth healthy.’