Oral Health in Rabbits
Rabbits, as we know, are incessant chewers. They use their teeth not only to ingest their high-fiber diet, but also to express frustration or happiness or pain, remodel their environment, groom themselves and their companions, explore new situations and mark territory. There is a lot we can do to keep these important tools in good shape. Problems that often occur in the oral cavity include malocclusion of incisors, split or broken teeth, points or spurs on cheek teeth, foreign bodies, abscesses, tooth root and/or bone infection, and warts. Early detection is often crucial to the outcome of these problems.
Oral Health Home Care Plan
A. Frequent (weekly) mouth inspections
1. Check the head and face
With your rabbit sitting in front of and facing away from you, feel along the sides of his face and under the jaw with light pressure. The sides should feel equal, and there should be no bulges or swellings that aren’t symmetrical. Apply slightly firmer pressure to the sides of the jaws. If your rabbit repeatedly flinches when you reach a certain spot, it may mean there is something painful going on inside the mouth. The underside of the chin is a very ticklish spot for many rabbits, and the scent gland located here can make it feel slightly irregular or bumpy. Learn how much touching of this area your rabbit usually allows, and how it feels when normal; changes may indicate a developing problem.
2. Check the incisor teeth
The incisors are located at the front of the jaw and are easy to see and examine, with a little experience. With your rabbit either on her back or sitting facing away from you, gently part her lips to make her “smile.” If she is sitting, use your body to prevent her from backing up. The four large teeth you see (2 top and 2 bottom) are her incisor teeth. Check to see that they are not loose & that the gum tissue is healthy pink (not red or purple). Check to make sure that the teeth meet and wear correctly (see illustration). Maloccusion (teeth that don’t meet and wear properly) allows teeth to overgrow and need frequent trimming. Providing a maloccluded rabbit with things to chew will not alleviate the problem. Consult your veterinarian if your rabbit has malocclusion. Most cases of incisor malocclusion are hereditary and are manifested before 6 months of age. Malocclusion starting later in life may be due to trauma, infection or tumors and should be checked by your veterinarian as soon as convenient. Check for hair or other foreign objects caught around the teeth.
Behind the upper incisors are two small peg-like teeth called auxiliary incisors or sensibly, “peg teeth.” They are harder to see than the incisors, but happily rarely cause problems.
3. Check for problems with cheek teeth.
The rabbit’s grinding teeth or cheek teeth are too far back in the mouth to be easily checked without the use of an otoscope, but you can watch for secondary signs of cheek-tooth pain such as:
- Drooling or wetness around the mouth
- Swelling, warmth or pain at the jawline or under chin
- Change in food preference (especially, but not always, from harder to softer foods)
- Showing interest in food, but not eating
- Weight loss
- Bad odor from mouth
- Grinding teeth (not the happy purring sound)
- Reclusive or grumpy behavior
If a malocclusion allows food or hair to collect around teeth, you can keep infection at bay by using the smallest-size baby tooth brush to remove the accumulated debris.
B. Create a “safe chewing environment”
1. Safe chewing objects
Offer plenty of approved and safe chewing objects, such as cardboard, wood, dried pinecones, unlaquered wicker baskets, and straw mats.
2. Avoid hazardous chewing
Exclude your rabbit from dangerous areas, such as where electrical wires run.
3. Be Vigilant
Pick up small objects that can lodge in your rabbit’s mouth, such as rubber bands, needles, twist-ties, and paper clips.
Although our rabbits’ teeth can cause us inconvenience by destroying household objects, such as phone cords or chair legs, it is still to our advantage to keep their teeth in good working order. Healthy teeth are integral to maintaining your rabbit’s health, both physical and mental.
by Carolynn Harvey, DVM
House Rabbit Journal Spring 1997: Volume III, Number 9