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Signs And Causes Of Dental Disease In Rabbits

Know what to look for and if your rabbit is at risk for dental disease.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: January 11, 2015, 2:30 p.m. EST

overgrown teeth of rabbit
© Courtesy Leticia Materi, Phd, DVM
A rabbit's teeth grow continuously, so a rabbit needs food or toys that let him gnaw or grind so his teeth do not overgrow.

In a previous blog, I wrote about the anatomy and physiology of normal rabbit teeth. To summarize:

   • Rabbits have 28 teeth.
   • All of these teeth continuously grow throughout the lifetime of the rabbit.
   • Rabbits need to constantly grind down their teeth.
   • How well they grind their teeth is heavily influenced by what they eat.

One of the advantages of having continuously growing teeth is that cavities can never form because bacteria never have a chance to set up a colony (see my blog about ferret dental disease to learn more about cavities).

When experiencing dental disease, rabbits can show a variety of signs. These include: drooling, weight loss, difficulty eating (especially hay), reduced appetite, eye discharge, swellings/lumps on the face or jaw, and/or bulging eyes.

rabbit cheek teeth with spurs
© Courtesy Leticia Materi, Phd, DVM 
Cheek teeth or molars also continue to grow and can develop spurs.

Dental disease occurs for a variety of reasons. 

1. Improper diet. In the wild, rabbits consume a lot of tough food items, such as grass, leafy weeds and even bark from shrubs. In order to be swallowed safely, these types of food require a lot of chewing and grinding by the teeth, which promote wearing of the teeth. In captivity, this is best accomplished by providing our pets with an unlimited amount of hay. Pellets, on the other hand, are not as good at wearing down the teeth because they are made up of tiny hay particles that are bound together and crumble very easily. However, it is because they crumble easily that many rabbits with bad teeth are often still able to eat pellets but not hay.

2. Congenital/inherited. Certain breeds of rabbit are more predisposed to developing dental problems. This is because rabbits are often bred for external traits like color or fur texture. For example, one of the breed standards for Holland Lops is to have a short snout. This reduces the length of the face. However, they still have the same number and size of teeth as other rabbits, so these teeth become crowded and misaligned in the shortened snout and jaw thus contributing to problems. Other breeds that are prone to dental disease include dwarf rabbits and Lionheads. These rabbits are more likely to have excessively long lower jaws, thus misaligning the incisors. While not every member of these breeds develop teeth problems, they should be monitored closely for signs of trouble. 

3. Trauma. The bones of the jaw/face or the teeth themselves may be damaged in traumatic accidents, such as a fall or if the rabbit’s head is stepped on or crushed in a door. This can lead to improper alignment of teeth, thus reducing teeth grinding and resulting in abnormally long teeth.

4. Metabolic bone disease. This can be the result of a variety of dietary, hormonal, and/or husbandry problems. Ultimately, there is a disruption of calcium metabolism that results in weak bones, including the upper and lower jawbones. This leads to destabilization and elongation of the roots of the teeth.

In the next blog entry, I will discuss end-stage dental disease and jaw abscesses. Stay tuned!

Note: This article is meant for educational purposes only and in no way represents any particular individual or case. It is not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

See all of Dr. Materi's blogs

Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
Signs Of A Sick Rabbit
Rabbit Teeth: Good, Bad And Ugly
Tips For Finding The Right Veterinarian For Your Small Animal Pet

Posted: January 11, 2015, 2:30 p.m. EST


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