Facilities : Dentistry for Rabbits
A bit of biology to start with...
Rabbits have very special dentition that keeps growing throughout their life.
In the wild a rabbit's teeth would be constantly being worn down by tough fibrous grasses and would grow at a rate corresponding to the wearing down.
A diet of grass and fresh vegetation would ensure the correct calcium balance so their jaw bones remain hard and their teeth have little movement and so remain in apposition.
Domestic rabbits typically are fed on a mixture of dry cereal based food with often little or no roughage and frequently a poor calcium balance.
They are selective eaters which means that even if they are offered a full and balanced diet they will pick and choose, usually leaving the calcium and roughage rich pellets in a mixed diet in favour of the sweet squashed peas and coloured nuggets than have little nutritional value.
In addition, a lot of rabbits that end up in pet shops are the products of breeding that has selected for facial characteristics far removed for their wild relations.
So how does that lead to teeth problems?
The combination of the factors above means that we see teeth problems in rabbits very very frequently.
When a rabbit has a soft jaw bone from a poorly balanced diet its teeth will move position so that they are inclined rather than straight up and down.
Now when they grow they will tend to wear so that there are sharp spurs going in towards the tongue at the bottom and out to the cheek at the top. A soft jaw bone is also prone to abscess formation.
Malocclusion (where the teeth don't meet properly) is common in the front teeth (incisors).
This can happen due to conformation at birth, especially in dwarf breeds, due to accidents such as dropping or from overgrowth of the back teeth preventing the front of the mouth to close properly.
How do I know if my rabbit has teeth problems?
Rabbits somehow can manage to eat in spite of teeth that are causing a lot of damage to their tongue, cheek and other soft tissues.
However they often get even more selective with their food, preferring sometimes their fresh food over the dry.
They may stop grooming themselves properly leading to a dirty bottom as they stop eating the "soft poo" or caecotrophs they produce.
Lack of grooming and general poor condition from eating less than normal can lead to fur mites which look like very bad dandruff.
Sometimes one of the first signs can be wet front paws by the dew claws from wiping their mouths where they are salivating excessively from the pain of the sharp teeth.
Incisors that don't meet can even grow up into the rabbit's nose or down into its chin preventing even drinking.
Runny eyes can also be a sign of tooth problems as the roots pass close to the tear ducts and can press on them when there is abnormal wear.
In the worst case if your rabbit has stopped eating completely it may stop passing droppings and this is a very serious sign as it means they gut has stopped working and the rabbit would need to be seen as soon as possible.
I think my rabbit needs a dental, what happens now?
Your rabbit will need to be checked by a vet who will check her over completely because, as discussed above, there are lots of conditions that can result from over grown teeth and we need to make sure we address all your rabbits problems.
The vet will probably look at your rabbit's back teeth with an auroscope.
This will give us an idea of how bad the back teeth are, however it can be difficult to get a good view in a conscious rabbit especially if there is food in the mouth or if the mouth is very sore.
The vet may also feel your rabbit's jaw line form lumpiness that may indicate an abscess.
If we feel that your rabbit has lost a lot of condition we may decide to try and build him up prior to having an anaesthetic for a dental.
This may be with fluid therapy, supportive feeding, painkillers or other drugs to help start up its digestion.
My rabbit has overgrown incisors, can they just be clipped?
Although clipping rabbit incisors used to be common place it has been realised that this is a painful and crude way of dealing with the problem.
Clipping can lead to stress fractures of the teeth which leads to abscesses.
In the short term, or for a rabbit who we feel would not cope with an anaesthetic, we would trim the overgrown incisors with a low speed dental drill.
Most rabbits tolerate this procedure conscious and it can be carried out during a normal consultation.
However, as the teeth tend to regrow very quickly (in an average or 4-6 weeks) we would recommend having the incisors removed altogether.
This would seem like a drastic solution but the rabbit is probably not using its incisors to bite food to any great extent and once they are extracted the risk of abscesses and soft tissue damage from overgrowth are much reduced.
We use specially designed dental elevators, as the incisors are long and curved inside the jaw bone.
Rabbits cope very well without incisors using their prehensile lips to grasp food.
There is the risk that part of the root remains and regrows needing to be removed again at some point in the future, but this is a rare occurrence and the subsequent dental procedure is much shorter than the first.
My rabbit is coming in for a dental, what will happen?
Your rabbit will get admitted in the morning just like the other pets (see 'My pet is having an op').
We do not ask you to starve your rabbit overnight as rabbits do not vomit and they need the energy from having access to food at all times.
Please bring in some of your rabbit's own food for her to eat when she wakes up from her anaesthetic.
If your rabbit has got overgrown back teeth but no signs of an abscess the dental procedure should be quite straight forward.
She will be anaesthetised and, using our specialized rabbit dental equipment, any spurs will be rasped smooth.
Any loose molars will be extracted as far as possible, although very often they will have fractured above the root and will grow back eventually.
She will then be given some warmed fluid o help support her through the anaesthetic and pain relief as necessary.
We may want to carry out an x-ray to determine the extent of the root involvement.
This will let us know how likely the problem is to recur.
This can also be useful if we suspect a tear duct problem that may have been caused by tooth roots or to investigate the extent of an abscess.
If your rabbit has also got an abscess as well as having her molars rasped she will need to have the abscess lanced.
You will need to discuss with the vet what this will involve as every rabbit abscess is different and all are difficult to manage.
Even though we have had very good success with managing many rabbit abscesses it is a procedure not to be undergone lightly as many rabbits will need long term medication and wound management.
If your rabbit is having her incisors removed she will get premedicated with antibiotic and a painkiller so the effects are circulating by the time she has her anaesthetic.
After her incisors have been removed she will probably be kept in overnight so we can continue any pain relief necessary and keep her tooth sockets clean.
When she is discharged we will show you how to keep the sockets clean at home.
My rabbit has had her dental, now what?
If your rabbit has had back teeth problems sadly they are likely to recur.
Although a change in diet to minimal good quality dry food, lots of leafy greens, hay and as much grass as is practical will be very beneficial overall and may reduce the frequency of further dentals it is likely your rabbit will need dentals in the future.
The movement of the teeth in the jaw that caused the malocclusion and the spurs, are irreversible and the teeth will carry on growing at an odd angle through the rabbits life.
By spotting the early signs of dental problems though you will be able to pick up the problem before it gets too bad.
The dental procedure is much less of a stress on a rabbit that is only just starting to go off her food than one with severe mouth pain and dehydration.
We believe that rabbits with dental disease can live happy lives with regular dental checks.