As mentioned earlier, when rabbits’ teeth are not worn down sufficiently, they continue to erupt and become excessively long. This happens to the front incisors which are visible, as well as the back molars which you cannot see. The elongated teeth will curve past each other resulting in sharp points causing painful injuries to the rabbit’s mouth.
In most cases, you won’t see symptoms until it’s too late – initially, it may be that the rabbit goes off its food a little, preferring soft greens to hard feed or hay and may eventually start to drool saliva. Rabbits are prey animals and do not readily show pain – this means that they may still appear bright and well but could be suffering greatly.
The next stage of the disease is when the roots of the rear molars start to erupt abnormally downwards through the lower jaw. When these pierce the bottom of the jawbone, a bony lump can be felt beneath the jawbone which is normally smooth. Eventually, the tooth roots will penetrate completely through the jawbone into the soft tissues beneath the jaw and the irritation may cause an abscess to form – you would notice a hard soft tissue lump or mass under or around the chin or side of the face.
The converse of this situation in the upper jaw is that the elongated tooth roots grow upwards into the eye sockets, pushing onto the eyeball from beneath. These roots can also block the tear duct that drains the eye causing persistent or recurrent conjunctivitis. Thus a rabbit with severe dental disease may initially present with repeated eye problems.
Diagnosis: After identifying characteristic symptoms and performing a full health exam, the diagnosis is confirmed by a more thorough examination under anaesthetic, possibly including dental x-rays.
Treatment: Initial treatment is to correct the disease within the mouth by burring the teeth back to a normal height. Our vets will advise you on the severity of the disease and any other investigation or treatment that is necessary.
Once symptoms appear the disease will be well established and there is no cure. In some cases, we perform regular dental burring and re-alignment on the teeth. Sometimes, in more severe cases, the most humane option is euthanasia.
The moral of the story is to feed your rabbit properly from the word go, but even if it is older, a gradual change of diet could still help. We are told by clients that their rabbits will ‘only eat dried food’. Don’t assume this is the case – a gradual reduction in dried food offered will eventually make the rabbit hungry enough to eat grass and hay. Trying ‘readi-grass’ (a much fresher dried grass), trying different brands of hay and offering hay in hay nets, boxes or toys may help. Persevere, as it could make a big difference to your rabbit’s health.
As well as improving dental health, a high fibre diet based around grass and hay is beneficial for overall digestive function, making them less prone to diarrhoea and flystrike.
Please note that although the dental problems described above are usually caused by an inadequate diet, they can also be seen in very young rabbits less than a year of age owing to abnormal skull conformation, caused by poor breeding. In this situation the teeth do not meet properly from the start so the same problems develop.
Dental abscesses occur due to a molar tooth root penetrating through the jaw bone. Simple treatment of lancing and flushing the abscess is unlikely to work because the underlying irritant, which is the tooth root, will still be present. Removal of molar teeth from rabbits is very difficult, with a high risk of damaging the jaw, and is likely to lead and even if this was possible, the rabbit would have ongoing problems thereafter as the opposing upper tooth would have nothing to wear against.
Many rabbits in this situation are sadly euthanased, as treatment is very involved and costly. Our vets will advise you on the options and the best course of treatment for your animal in this situation.
This may be caused by a sudden dietary change, a low fibre diet, infectious organisms or stress. The normal hindgut flora has a delicate balance and the smallest dietary change can allow nasty bacteria to gain advantage and take over, some producing toxins which can lead to flystrike (see below), dehydration and death. All new food should be very gradually introduced and the correct, high fibre diet should be provided.
This is a distressing and all too common problem of the summer months. Any soiling of the rabbit’s rear will attract blowflies to lay their eggs in the fur. These can hatch into maggots within 12 hours, which will then burrow into the skin causing the rabbit great distress and life-threatening damage.
It is therefore particularly important to check your rabbit over at least once a day and this means looking underneath around the tail area for any evidence of diarrhoea or the little white eggs stuck to the fur. Any soiling MUST be quickly washed away and the fur dried again. Overweight rabbits are more prone to this problem as they may not be able to clean themselves thoroughly.
If you would like any further information about preventing flystrike then please ask us – we can advise on insecticides such as spot-on products and barrier creams.
If you think your rabbit has flystrike, then please call the practice and we will make you an urgent appointment.
“Snuffles” or Pasteurellosis
This disease, caused by the bacteria Pasteurella, often presents as conjunctivitis or breathing problems but may also show as sudden balance problems or abscesses. Pasteurella lives in the respiratory tract of most healthy rabbits anyway and only causes disease in some individuals who are otherwise compromised.
As the organism is impossible to eradicate fully, the only prevention is to ensure that everything about the rabbit’s care and environment is as good as it can be, particularly with regards to hygiene.