Dental Problems: Rabbits

The image to the left shows a small molar spike within the mouth of a rabbit.  This bunny has started to eat less because that small sharp corner of this cheek tooth is starting to irritate its tongue.  If not corrected, this may create a painful ulcer on the tongue and lead to a crisis situation.

A Little Bit About Rabbit Teeth

Rabbits are chewers and gnawers.  In the wild, they feed on tough grasses, leaves, and bark that wear down their front teeth (incisors) and cheek teeth (premolars and molars).  As a result, rabbits have teeth that grow continuously to replace the portion that wears away with chewing.

Why Do They Get Dental Problems?

Dental problems are very common in captive rabbits if they do not get proper diets.  The main portion of their diet should be high quality timothy hay, such as the Oxbow Timothy Hay, which helps wear the teeth and provides enough fiber to promote their gastrointestinal health.  If a pet rabbit does not get enough timothy grass hay to cause tooth wear similar to what it would get in the wild, its teeth may grow in unusual shapes.  This is particularly due to lack of material to physically grind the biting surface of the teeth.  Pelleted food and alfalfa hay are soft and do not cause the rabbits to chew vigorously side to side as timothy hay does.

Very severe lower cheek teeth "spikes", much more obvious on the left side of the picture. A bleeding ulcer is visible on this side where the teeth are grinding on the lining of the cheek as the rabbit chews.

Lower cheek teeth "spikes" (green arrows) are digging into the tongue and cause pain and difficulty chewing and swallowing.

Upper cheek tooth spike (green arrow) that has a sharp surface irritating the cheek. Upper cheek teeth problems may be very difficult to detect without a thorough endoscopic oral exam on an anesthetized rabbit.

"Picket fence" teeth, a layman's term for a form of malocclusion where the teeth are not aligned. In this case, some of the teeth are forming points that hit the cheek and others hit the tongue.

"Stair step" teeth, a layman's term for a form of malocclusion where the teeth are different heights. In this case, some of the teeth are forming points that hit the tongue. If you've ever had a filling that the dentist didn't shape properly, you'll know how this uneveness makes it difficult to chew.

The "stair step" teeth in the previous picture have been filed to a more normal chewing surface.

Dental disease can develop for a variety of other reasons.  For example, some animals may be born with abnormally shaped teeth that simply don't line up for proper grinding.  This is particularly common in dwarf and lop-eared rabbit breeds.  Injuries to the mouth, skull, or jaw bone may cause the teeth to grow at odd angles.  Tumors may also start to deform the shape of the teeth.

Practices to Promote Healthy Teeth

  • Proper Diet. Have timothy hay available at all times.  This provides the right amount of fiber to keep their gastrointestinal tract healthy and helps prevent problems developing with their teeth.  In addition to the timothy hay, we recommend the following:
    • Rabbits: We recommend offering a small amount of timothy hay pellets (e.g., Oxbow Bunny Basics/T™) in the evening. Rabbits under 5 lbs should get no more than 1/8 to 1/4 of a cup of pellets daily while larger rabbits should be offered no more than 1/2 to 3/4 cup daily. Other dried grasses and hays (e.g., Oxbow Orchard Grass, Alfalfa Hay, Oat Hay, etc.) may be given sparingly as treats. Depending on the size of the rabbit, one to three cups of dark green leafy vegetables, fresh grass, mulberry leaves, and hibiscus leaves and flowers may also be given daily. Tiny treats of fruit such as banana or watery vegetables such as carrots are okay but more than a tablespoon of these items may cause diarrhea. Salt blocks may be offered to the rabbit but avoid ones that contain calcium as these may lead to bladder and kidney stones. Alfalfa pellets (e.g., Oxbow Bunny Basics™ 15/23) may be given to growing rabbits or rabbits with special needs but are not recommended for healthy adult rabbits.
  • Veterinary Exams  Bring your pet in for an annual physical examination.  We'll check the length and condition of their teeth.  For a pet with ongoing problems, we recommend a check every 4 to 6 months so that we can tackle problems before they impact its health.  If we find that the teeth are overgrown, we will set up an appointment to file the teeth under general anesthesia and administer other treatments that may be needed.

If you are at all concerned that your pet may be developing dental disease please make an appointment for an exam!

A rabbit having its cheek teeth filed while under general anesthesia.

Some rabbits require such frequent teeth filing that extraction of the abnormal teeth is a better option.  This rabbit had to have all four incisor teeth extracted because they grew in at such abnormal angles and required filing every few weeks.  Extraction of an incisor is a delicate procedure and a rabbit requires lots of special attention afterward until its mouth heals.  Fortunately, most rabbits do quite well without any incisors.