Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut.
One of the most common and potentially complicated issues in rabbits are dental problems, but spotting these problems isn’t always the easiest. Rabbit dentition is unusual with incisors (and smaller peg teeth) at the front of the mouth and visible, with rows of cheek teeth (molars) positioned at the back of the mouth and not able to be seen without specialist
equipment. Rabbits are also very good at hiding problems, often meaning issues are further advanced than we would like before we notice them. This means that we have to look for more subtle signs when these teeth are causing a problem and seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.
One of the early signs that can be spotted by owners is a change in diet preference. When teeth are causing a problem, things which were usually eaten but are harder to grind up properly, such as hay, can be shunned in preference to easier to eat veg or crumbly pellets. This is because the molars often rub against each other wrongly and develop spurs (sharp edges) which will rub the tongue or cheeks causing ulcers and sores. These areas can be very painful, made worse by having to grind up hard food. Any hard foods could potentially be picked up and then dropped again. These changes to diet, if not spotted initially, tend to lead to anorexia and weight loss which can be significant over time.
Regular weight checks are a great way to monitor any changes to weight and are an early method to pick up changes and problems. Anorexia can also lead to gut stasis which is a potentially fatal emergency. Any changes to diet that are unusual should always involve a vet check to ensure there are no underlying problems and to prevent escalation. Changes to drinking preference can also be an indicator of issues. Rabbits with dental problems given a choice between a water bottle and a bowl will usually pick a bowl as the water bottle can catch teeth and cause pain. This is a great reason for offering water in multiple dispensers to ensure proper intake.
More visible signs can be seen as problems progress. Overgrowth of the molars will lead to a misalignment of the jaw as the rabbit tries to compensate for the back teeth and this will potentially cause an overgrowth of the incisors which can be visibly seen. Incisors should be checked daily for any signs of them not properly aligning or over lengthening. Drooling can also be a key sign; any wetness of the chin or excess saliva should lead to a vet check. A more unexpected sign of dental problems can be discharged from the nose or excess tear production. This is because the roots of the molars, if they overgrow, can put pressure on and even completely block the tear ducts, meaning they cannot drain correctly. Overgrowth of these roots in the lower jaw can also lead to lumps and bumps along the jawline, even leading to abscesses in severe cases. Dental problems are also often painful for the rabbit involved. This means you may see signs of pain including teeth grinding and visible facial signs such as pulling back of the whiskers, tightening of the face and narrowing of the eyes.
Any visual pain signs should lead to a vet appointment as soon as possible as pain has to be fairly severe before the rabbit shows signs. The key thing to remember with dental issues in rabbits is that if you have any suspicion there may be a problem, seeing a rabbit savvy vet as soon as possible to assess the dentition and decide on a treatment plan is key.