Rabbits, being strict herbivores, have very different teeth then carnivorous pets, such as dogs and cats. They possess long, chisel like incisors at the front of their mouth, used to cut up section of food while grazing. Their are two pairs of incisors on the upper jaw, with the smaller pair (sometimes called the "peg" teeth) lying directly behind the more forward set, and a single pair of incisors on the lower jaw. Behind these teeth the large grinding premolars and molars can be found.
All of the rabbit's teeth have long roots (the section of the tooth below the gums and embedded in the jaw bone) and short, square crowns (the section above the gum line, where food is chewed - also known as the "occlusal" surface. Unlike human or canine teeth, rabbit teeth grow continuously throughout life, as they constantly being ground away as they chew their food.
The single most important factor in maintaining healthy dentition in rabbits is diet. Rabbits evolved to eat a large amount of coarse, long stemmed and broad leafed vegetables, such as grass and broad leaf plants. In the wild they found an abundance of these materials in the plants that they grazed on throughout the day, however, in captivity, we must attempt to mimic this style of eating through the diet we offer our rabbits. The rabbit must have constant access to long stem roughage in the form of quality hay, grazing on grass, and a variety of vegetables. Providing nutrition solely in the form of rabbit pellets or mixes and chew toys is inadequate for not only the rabbit's dental health, but also can be harmful for their digestive health and mental well being. Offering a mixed roughage and vegetable based diet also helps to prevent nutritional imbalances which can lead to bone and tissue weaknesses that may predispose the rabbit to dental issues.
Breeding also plays a role in dental disease, as malocclusions (where the teeth of the upper and lower jaws do not meet up properly) can be hereditary. Malocclusions can lead to uneven tooth wear, which may eventually lead to serious medical conditions, such as tooth root abscesses, mouth ulcers, decreased appetite, weight loss and gut stasis.
Infection of the tooth roots, sometimes encountered secondary to systemic infections or when grains or grass seeds become lodged along the tooth roots, can also cause teeth to grow abnormally and induce malocclusions.
Rabbits are not always the easiest animals to detect dental changes in, but general changes to look out for include:
- drooling or slobbering, or green staining around the mouth
- sneezing or nasal discharge
- weight loss
- changes in eating habits
- uneven eye size
- abnormal tooth growth
- decreased ability to groom
If any of these symptoms, prompt veterinary attention is required. During the examination, the veterinarian may use a special instrument to examine the molars, cheeks and tongue and also examine the face for signs that intervention may be required.
Radiographs (X-rays) may be indicated to judge the level of dental disease present and help plan any procedures required to correct or manage the condition found.
Depending on the type of disease encountered, various medical and surgical procedures may be required to correct the condition. Depending on the severity of the disease and the general health of the patient, these procedures may be carried out over one or more visits.
Most procedures are carried out under full general anesthetic to ensure that the rabbit experiences the minimum pain and distress possible, as well as to improve the surgeon's ability to access the structures of the mouth. Anesthesia involves administering a combination of sedation and pain relief, as well as anesthetic gas. To perform this procedure as safely as possible, a tube is usually inserted through the rabbit's mouth and into the trachea (wind pipe) to ensure that the rabbit has a constant oxygen supply and to reduce the chances that fluid, tooth particles and mucous could be accidentally inhaled during the procedure. Additionally, antibiotics and pain relievers may be started before or after the procedure to treat specific disease if needed.
Procedures often performed on rabbits with dental disease include:
- grinding or rasping of teeth to reduce overgrown crown and put the chewing surfaces back into proper alignment (occlusion). This procedure often requires special motorized miniature hand pieces to allow the molars to be accessed
- cutting of incisor teeth to restore normal crown length. This should be accomplished with motorized cutting wheels and burrs, as simply clipping the teeth can lead to tooth fracture and root abscesses.
- extraction of severely diseased teeth when infection or malocclusion prevents them ever returning to normal position and function
- surgical resection and treatment of tooth root and jaw abscesses
As these procedures often require specialized equipment and competency in rabbit anesthesia, it is important that a veterinarian equipped and skilled and comfortable with rabbit anesthesia and treatment be sought when considering dental treatment for your pet.