Rabbits have 28 teeth. The front incisors and cheek teeth grow all the time at the rate of about two to three milimetres a week. The upper and lower teeth don’t have the same amount of enamel, but this doesn’t matter as the grinding action includes sideways action so that the teeth wear evenly (Van Caelenberg et al., 2008). Or they would with the right diet.
With the wrong diet, and not enough to chew, the teeth grow wonky. Symptoms of tooth or mouth problems are failing to eat, reduced number of droppings, weight loss, and unkempt fur (can’t groom) Watering eyes, nasal discharge, teeth grinding and frothing at the mouth (‘the slobbers’) are also often seen. Because the teeth hurt, the rabbit eats less fibre only eating soft food so the condition worsens.
Pet rabbits in hutches or house rabbits may also have a deficiency of vitamin D which helps them absorb calcium (Hunt & Harrington 1974). Indeed in the laboratory they are models for human osteoporosis. Lack of calcium affects their teeth as well as their bones (Harcourt-Brown 2010)
If they are fed a muesli diet, they are likely not to eat the pellets that have calcium in them. Even with lots of hay, a muesli diet is bad for their teeth which begin showing signs of disorder after a comparatively short time (University of Edinburgh & Burgess 2013). So it is essential that muesli is not fed, if you want your rabbit’s teeth to be OK.
A diet of only hay and vegetables (excellent for tooth wear) may nonetheless have insufficient calcium. If a rabbit has time outside in the sunlight, it can synthesise the extra vitamin D it needs. If not, then its diet should include some (not too much) extruded pellets (Harcourt Brown 2011). Read What should I feed my rabbit. Give your rabbit things to chew like fresh willow branches and willow toys.
As well as mis-shapen teeth, other problems may include facial abscesses (from teeth growing into the jaw), gum disease and disease from a blockage in the nose and tear duct. Cheek teeth overgrowth is more common in elderly rabbits (with lots of time on the wrong diet) but some breeds such as Netherland dwarfs may have a hereditary predisposition (Harcourt-Brown, 2002).
Don’t try to treat your rabbit yourself. It’s difficult to see into the mouth properly (Verstraete & Oxofsky, 2008) and clipping the teeth (as some people do) may result in dental abcesses (Sanchez 2009). This is another reason for getting a vet who knows about rabbits. Join the RWA for a list.
Hunt, C.E. & Harrington, D. D. (1974), ‘Nutrition and Nutritional Disease of the Rabbit,’ in eds, Weisbrother, S. H., Flatt, R. E. & Kraus, A. L., The Biology of the Laboratory Rabbit, Orlando, USA, Academic Press.
Harcourt-Brown, F., (2002), Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, Oxford, UK, Butterworth-Heinemann.
Harcourt-Brown, 2011, ‘Disease related to calcium metabolism in rabbits,’ Proceedings of the World Small Animal veterinary Congress 2010.
Sanchez, J.M.F., (2009), ‘Dental abcesses in rabbits,’ Proceeding of the SEVC Southern European Veterinary Conference
University of Edinburgh & Burgess (2013), ‘Health. Diet. The Research,’ Available at www.rabbitawarenessweek.co.uk/diet/the-research. Accessed August 28 2013.