An important part of keeping your rabbit healthy is ensuring good dental health. Dental problems in rabbits can go sideways pretty quickly so it’s a good idea to include dental health as part of your normal bunny care routine.
A quick look at your rabbit’s mouth and you might think they only have the 4 front teeth, but hiding in that cute little bunny mouth are 28 teeth! The most prominent (and most likely to have issues) teeth in your bunny’s mouth are the four large incisors, 2 on the top and 2 on the bottom.
Behind the main top incisors are two little mini incisors called peg teeth. The large incisors & peg teeth are mostly used for grabbing & slicing food (and sometimes power cords!).
The remaining 22 teeth are called “cheek teeth” and made up of molars & tiny premolars used to grind up food. Wild rabbits are natural foragers, and eating a constant diet of fibrous roots, grasses, leaves and bark is really hard on teeth. God, in his wisdom, has given rabbits open rooted teeth. This means that they will continue to grow throughout their lives, sort of similar to finger nails. This way, a chipped or broken tooth in a wild rabbit doesn’t have to be a death sentence.
In a healthy rabbit, the teeth are straight and meet up together, perfectly aligned. In the wild, a rabbit would keep their back cheek teeth short through grinding while munching on grass and she could keep the front incisors short & sharpened by chewing and slicing twigs and pulling bark from trees. When keeping domestic rabbits, it is important to provide similar experiences so the rabbit can take care of her teeth. If a rabbit has dental problems and stops eating, it can be fatal in as little as 24 hours, so keeping their teeth healthy is important for healthy rabbits.
The rabbits most at risk for dental problems are ones that live indoors and eat a primarily pellet based diet. The longer a rabbit lives like this, the higher the risk is. Rabbit pellets provide nutrition, but don’t provide enough fiber & resistance, particularly for the large slicing incisors, to keep teeth in tip top shape.
The back teeth can also suffer from a high pellet diet by not having enough to grind. When the back teeth are not used enough, they can wear unevenly, making them align unevenly. Left unchecked, the molars can develop sharp edges that can cut the inside of the cheek or tongue, which not only hurt, but could become infected and cause an abscess.
When the teeth don’t line up properly, it is called malocclusion. Some rabbits might be born with maloccluded teeth, others could have an injury that causes it, but the most common reason in domestic rabbits is a low fiber diet. Besides the risk of developing sharp edges, maloccluded teeth can also cause the tooth root to become impacted which is very painful, and could even lead to an abscess forming in the jaw bone.
Keeping rabbit teeth short & aligned is far easier than trying to treat them once they become a problem. When their teeth get long and maligned, they can be trimmed with clippers or sanded down with a Dremel or sanding disk, but this can be risky because you could chip or split the tooth, which is painful for your bunny & could introduce infection at the root. It’s best left to a veterinarian experienced with rabbits (if malocclusion is a congenital, ongoing problem with your bunny, your vet might be able to show you how to do it yourself, but in general I would not recommend undertaking something like this). Many rabbits will not sit still while you are fussing around in their mouth, especially if it is tender, so it is often necessary to put the rabbit under anesthesia.
How to care for your rabbit’s teeth
*hay, hay and more hay! One of the most important things you can do is provide unlimited hay. This is not only great for digestive health, but it’s vital for dental health as well. For bonus points, try offering different kinds of hay. The different textures will make your rabbit use different chewing motions. An adult rabbit should go through a bundle of hay roughly the size of their body each day. If your bunny isn’t eating as much hay as he should, you might be feeding too many pellets. I know my bunnies’ first choice of food is pellets, and if I give them too much, they would gladly fill up on that leaving no room for fresh veggies or hay. Speaking of fresh veggies, providing a variety of greens from crisp lettuce leaves to fibrous herb sprigs or celery is another great toothy workout.
*provide chewing opportunities. Give your rabbits the same experiences wild rabbits would have. Tough tree branches, leaves or twigs not only will save your furniture from chewing, it will provide your bunny with a great dental workout. Chew blocks aren’t always the best option because they don’t provide chewing for both the incisors and molars. You can use purchased chew sticks, or just search your backyard. Before giving your bunny a stick you found in the yard, make sure you know it was not treated with any pesticides. Safe woods include fresh or dried branches from orange, lemon, apple, pear, willow or poplar trees and dried branches from maple or pine (you can even use lumber pieces as long as they aren’t treated with anything). You should avoid using wood from “pit” fruit trees (like peaches or cherries).
*check her teeth about once a month. Try to examine your bunny’s teeth every month. Gently lay her on her back, on your lap. Pull back her lips so you can see her incisors. Check that they are lined up on top & bottom. Her gums should be nice & pink (not white, red or bluish purple). Sniff her breath. It should smell sweet & grassy, a rotten smell can indicate an infection (unless she has recently eaten some poop, if so, I am sorry I suggested smelling her breath!). You will likely not be able to visually inspect the molars without really stressing her out and risking your fingers in the process. Feel the left & right sides of your rabbit’s head, below her eyes and along lower jaw. If you feel a lump on one side, or if your rabbit seems in pain when you touch a spot you should call your vet.
Other signs to look for
Rabbits are prey animals and have developed almost supernatural abilities to disguise weakness & pain, so if you notice any of these signs , the dental problem has likely been going on for some time and it’s important for you to act quickly
*digging at his mouth with his paws
*drooling or discharge from mouth
*swelling on face
*loss of interest in eating
*eye or nasal discharge (infections can travel into the sinuses)