The most common cause of illness in rabbits is poor dental health, they suffer terribly with their teeth and problems can become so severe, it is not unusual for bunnies to be euthansed because of them. However, the news is not all bad because it is actually very easy to keep a rabbits gnashers gnawing gnaturally!
Rabbits have teeth that grow all the time and are kept short by both a natural diet of tough, woody grasses and also by the upper and lower sets grinding on each other. However, since bunnies have been domesticated their diets can be very different from the wild, often consisting of more soft rabbit food and vegetables than hay and grass, and this is what causes the problems. Firstly, because the teeth aren’t worn down by these softer foods and secondly because they can become calcium deficient; leading to the jaw bones softening, the teeth shifting and no longer being in alignment with each other. This problem is particularly prevalent when the rabbit is fed the muesli type diets, which they tend to selectively eat by picking out their favourite bits and so they don’t get a balanced diet.
When they over-grow, the molar teeth can develop sharp spikes that dig into the sides of the mouth or tongue and cause a lot of pain. The incisor teeth can become extremely long and curl out of the mouth (which makes them easy to spot) or, worse, into it and dig into the flesh and bone. Again this is very painful and makes it almost impossible for the rabbit to eat. Also, the roots of the teeth can become impacted because of the back pressure and as well as being very sore, can also become infected; causing nasty abscesses which can be extremely difficult to treat.
Spotting dental problems is not always easy because rabbits will hide when they are poorly but checking their weight regularly, examining their mouths and carefully monitoring their appetite are all good ways of picking up on issues. To check your bunny’s mouth, hold them on your lap and gently lift their lips up to have a look at the incisor teeth. These should be smooth, even and short. It is more or less impossible to check the molar teeth without a special scope but by feeling along the upper and lower jaw bones you can pick up abscesses and swellings.
If you are at all concerned you should take your rabbit to your vet. The treatment of over-grown teeth can be a challenge and once they have developed them, many bunnies need to go in regularly for them to be trimmed, which can require an anaesthetic. Over-long incisors can be removed, which is a good idea because it solves the problem and the rabbit will still be able to eat without problems.
However, by far the best thing is prevention rather than cure and this is done very easily by making sure your bunny’s diet is as similar as possible to that of their wild cousins; lots and lots and lots of chewy hay and grass!