Exotic Pet Dental Care: What Happens When Teeth Grow Too Far?
April 29, 2008
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at www.cvm.uiuc.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Mandy Barth, mandyb@uiuc.edu.

Most pet owners understand that their dogs and cats need to receive the proper dental care at home and at the veterinarian's office in order to stay healthy. However, did you know that this is also true for exotic pet species?

According to Dr. Mark Mitchell, an exotic veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, proper dental care is an essential part of exotic pet ownership. Unfortunately for our cotton-tailed companions across the country, the animal that tends to have the highest occurrence of dental issues is the rabbit.

The mouth of a rabbit is much different than that of a dog or cat, which can present some unique challenges for owners and veterinarians. Rabbits' teeth are unique compared to those in Fido's mouth, in that the teeth of a rabbit grow continuously throughout its lifetime.

As with most things in nature, the form of rabbits' teeth is certainly a result of their function. As an herbivore the rabbit spends much of its time chewing on fibrous plant material, which allows the teeth to be worn down naturally. Unfortunately for the rabbit a variety of factors can contribute to the improper growth, position, or wear down of the teeth which can lead to a problem known as malocclusion.

"Malocclusion is unfortunately a very common problem in rabbits and other species with hypsodont teeth," explains Dr. Mitchell. "This issue arises when a rabbit's tooth becomes overgrown as a result of improper wearing. Causes of malocclusion and other dental issues in rabbits can range from the animal's genetics, to improper diet, to a vitamin D deficiency."

Dr. Mitchell stresses that the proper diet is critical for the prevention of malocclusion in a normal, healthy rabbit. He recommends feeding high-quality, long-stem fibrous hay, like timothy hay or Bermuda grass. Rabbit owners should also stay away from feeding only pellet-based diets, which do little to aid in the wear down of your rabbit's teeth.

According to Dr. Mitchell rabbits can also be genetically predisposed to problems with tooth overgrowth and malocclusion. Unfortunately, even with proper husbandry these rabbits will still have dental problems.

Malocclusion can be extremely painful and debilitating for our rabbit companions, however since they have evolved as a prey species they are reluctant to show any sign that they are in pain or otherwise ill. If your rabbit is showing clinical signs of malocclusion such as decreased appetite, problems picking up or chewing food, lethargy, or decreased fecal matter in the cage it is important to schedule a visit with a veterinarian sooner rather than later.

Dr. Mitchell explains that abscesses in the oral cavity or on the face can result from a malocclusion that goes untreated. If you notice any facial swelling, foul odor around the face or mouth, discharge from the mouth, or if the face is hot to the touch, these are all signs that your rabbit is in need of immediate veterinary attention.

Every rabbit, even if it seems completely healthy, should be scheduled for a physical exam at least once a year to ensure that all systems are functioning properly. Once your rabbit reaches the ripe age of four these exams should increase in frequency to twice a year. At each physical exam your veterinarian should complete a thorough oral exam, which includes examining the oral cavity for any signs of disease and checking the growth and wear down of the incisors, pre-molars, and molars.

Because the rabbit's teeth are set up differently than humans', a complete oral exam can sometimes be easier said than done. Do not be surprised if your veterinarian uses an otoscope, the same instrument used to look in your pet's ears, with an extended cone in order to examine the pre-molars and molars located near the back of the rabbit's mouth. If your rabbit becomes stressed or is not in the mood to cooperate, your veterinarian may need to complete the exam under general anesthesia using an endoscope.

According to Dr. Mitchell a thorough examination of the oral cavity is essential for proper diagnosis if your pet is showing any signs or symptoms of malocclusion since they can overlap with the signs seen with gastrointestinal issues. If all of the teeth are not inspected it would be easy for a veterinarian to diagnose a malocclusion of one of the hard to see pre-molars or molars as a gastrointestinal issue and miss the underlying cause of your rabbit's problem.

By using correct rabbit husbandry and ensuring that your rabbit receives the proper preventative veterinary attention owners can ensure that they will enjoy many happy years with their long-eared friends.

For more information regarding dental health for your rabbit or other exotic pet, contact your local veterinarian.

An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at www.cvm.uiuc.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Mandy Barth, mandyb@uiuc.edu.

Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine