Rabbit teeth are iconic. If there are two things everyone knows when they think about a rabbit, it’s their long ears and their big buck teeth. So it’s no surprise that a rabbit’s teeth play an important part in their health. Rabbit teeth are like fingernails. They will always keep growing. But if their teeth grow too long, the rabbit will have difficulty eating. It can lead to a number of problems with their health.
You can help your rabbit have trim and healthy teeth by making sure they have a healthy diet and some chew toys. Learn to check your rabbit’s teeth and mouth periodically so you can find any dental concerns before they become a problem.
Problems with a rabbit’s teeth may seem minor at first, but they can cause a whole chain of health issues if the teeth aren’t properly taken care of. Not eating is the biggest problem to look out for. But overgrown and unhealthy rabbit teeth can also cause infections that can spread to other areas of a rabbit’s skull.
Healthy rabbit teeth
When people think of rabbit teeth, they may assume we’re only talking about a rabbit’s two front teeth. But rabbits actually have a whole mouth full of teeth, and we want to make sure all of it is healthy.
Anatomy of rabbit teeth
Rabbits actually have 28 teeth. 16 on the top jaw and 12 on the bottom jaw. It’s important for a rabbit’s upper and lower teeth to line up correctly so that they can grind together while a rabbit is chewing and wear each other down.
A rabbit’s natural diet consists of grasses, weeds, twigs, roots, and other fibrous vegetation. These foods cause a lot of wear on a rabbits teeth. Over time their skulls needed to evolve to compensate. That’s why all rabbit teeth are open rooted, which means they will grow continuously so they are never worn down completely.
Rabbit teeth also don’t have any enamel to protect them, like human teeth do. This is good because it means the rabbit’s teeth can wear down faster. But it also means that if a rabbit gets a crack or chip in their tooth, they have a higher chance of getting an infection. It’s always good to have your vet check for any dental issues when you go in for an annual check-up. They could find any dental problems before it becomes serious.
The four basic types of rabbit teeth:
- Incisor teeth: Rabbits have four large incisor teeth, two at the top and two on the bottom. These are used to slice through food and break it down into smaller chunks for the back teeth to grind up.
- Auxiliary incisors (peg teeth): These are two small incisor teeth on the top jaw. They are located directly behind the two large incisor teeth, and assist in slicing through food.
- Premolars: There are six upper-premolars (3 on each side) and four lower-premolars (2 on each side). These make up the front portion of the cheek teeth in the back of a rabbits mouth. They assist in grinding down the food a rabbit is eating after it has been sliced by the incisors.
- Molars: There are six upper molars and six lower molars (3 on each side). They make up the back portion of the cheek teeth and take on the work of grinding food down before swallowing and digesting.
Teeth grinding is a normal and healthy behavior for rabbits, so don’t worry if you see your rabbits cheeks moving when they’re not chewing anything. You might even be able to hear the slight grinding sound if you go up close to your rabbit.
Teeth grinding is also known as a rabbit’s purring. They will often grind their teeth together gently when they are feeling comfortable or content. This is why you will notice it most often when you are petting your rabbit.
Keeping rabbit teeth healthy
Keeping your rabbit’s teeth healthy is usually very easy and doesn’t require any extra work on your part. As long as you are providing the rabbit with what they need, their instincts should help them to keep their teeth healthy on their own. If you give your rabbit a healthy diet and some fun chew toys, your rabbit’s teeth will most likely stay trim all on their own.
Having a healthy diet will make the biggest difference in a rabbit’s tooth health. Grinding down tough foods keeps the rabbit’s teeth nice and trim. So the number one most important food to provide for your rabbit is hay.
For a healthy rabbit diet, hay should make up about 80% of what you give your rabbit. They should have an unlimited supply of hay, so that it’s always available for the little bunnies to munch on. They should also have at least one to two cups of fresh greens daily and only a small amount of pellets.
Timothy hay, in particular, is tougher than other hays. It’s great for dental health because it does the best job at grinding down rabbit teeth as they chew. But it can also be advantageous to add in other types of hay. Having a variety of hays will help encourage your rabbit to eat more hay since they’ll get more of a variety of flavors. Personally, I choose to use a mix of timothy and orchard hay. My rabbit loves them and ends up eating more hay (these are my recommended rabbit foods).
Often times people will give their rabbit too many pellets. Pellets are much softer than hay and don’t do a good job at grinding down a rabbits teeth. Unfortunately, rabbits will usually like the taste of pellets better. So if you provide your rabbit with too many pellets, they will go for the tastier, softer food instead of the hay. Try to keep your rabbit’s pellets to between ¼ cup and ½ cup per day. They will probably gobble them up and run out of pellets pretty quickly. That’s okay because it will encourage your rabbit to eat more hay.
Chew toys for rabbits
Rabbits have an instinct to chew. They should be allowed to chew as much as they want throughout the day. This is an important part of keeping their teeth, especially their incisors, from overgrowing.
You’ll want to give your rabbit a variety of toys to chew on:
- Wooden toys are excellent for rabbit teeth. These can be hanging toys, or even just blocks for your rabbit to chew on and throw around. Be careful of the type of wood you are giving your rabbit though. Cedar is toxic to rabbits if they ingest it. You also want to check to make sure any paint on the toys uses vegetable dyes. Most other types of paint should not be ingested by rabbits.
- Cardboard is a fun and cheap option to give your rabbit. Toilet paper rolls and cardboard boxes make great chew toys. They are not quite as effective as wooden toys, since cardboard is much softer, but they still help grind a rabbit’s teeth down. Remember to remove any tape or staples from cardboard boxes before you give them to your rabbit though.
- Natural items, such as pinecones and applewood sticks, are also great chew toys for rabbits. These even provide new and interesting flavors for your rabbit explore. You can find these items outside and give them to your rabbit if you wash and dry them thoroughly. But you can also often purchase them along with other wooden chew toys.
If a rabbit isn’t given any toys to chew on (or if they get bored of their toys), they’ll probably end up going after your furniture, baseboards, or wires. To avoid this destructive behavior, work to rabbit proof your home. I also rotate in new toys occasionally to keep my rabbit occupied and interested. Here’s a list of rabbit toys that I recommend, if you’re having trouble deciding what to get for your rabbit.
Checking for dental health
Because healthy rabbit teeth is so vital to their overall health, it’s important to do some occasional checks to make sure everything is in tip-top shape. This doesn’t have to be a super involved or invasive health check, but just take a couple minutes to observe your rabbit while you’re petting them or interacting with them.
Step 1: Check around the rabbit’s cheeks
While you are interacting with your rabbit, spend a little time petting them with a gentle pressure on their cheeks. For most rabbits, this will feel like a pleasant cheek massage and they’ll really enjoy it.
As you do this, you are looking for abnormal bumps or abscesses along the jawline. Also pay attention to your rabbit’s behavior. If they keep flinching away when you reach a certain spot, it could be a sign that the spot is painful for them and should be checked out further by a rabbit-savvy veterinarian.
As you perform more of these checks you’ll start to know what “normal” means for your rabbit and you’ll be able to quickly identify any bumps that aren’t usually there.
Step 2: Check the front teeth
As you are petting your rabbit, position yourself in front of them. Gently pull their lips back and check their front teeth for any signs of overgrown teeth or chipped teeth. You should also check at this point to make sure the gums are pink and not red or purple, since those are signs of inflamed or unhealthy gums.
Your rabbit might not enjoy their teeth being checked like this at first. So what I do is start by giving my rabbit a massage and getting them comfortable with long strokes down her back. Then I will gently pull her lips back for just a few seconds to check on her teeth before going back to give her more full body strokes and scritches on her head and cheeks.
Step 3: Check for signs of trouble with the back teeth
The cheek teeth are too far back to see without using specialized equipment. So the best that we can do is look for external signs that something might be a problem.
Signs your rabbit may be having trouble with their back teeth:
- Swelling jawline
- Change in eating habits (eg. stops eating hay and will only eat pellets)
- Trying to eat a piece of food but continuously dropping it out of their mouth
- Looking interested in food, but not eating it
- Weight loss
- Loud teeth grinding, a loud grating sound instead of the normal soft purring
- Bad mouth odor
- Grumpy behavior
Having overgrown teeth is the most likely problem a rabbit could encounter with their dental health. When this happens it is called a malocclusion and your rabbits teeth will need to be trimmed by a veterinarian.
Malocclusions, or overgrown teeth, are very dangerous to a rabbits health. They can prevent a rabbit from eating enough, or in bad cases prevent them from eating at all.
Overgrown incisor teeth can also start to curl inward, making it likely for food to get trapped behind the teeth and eventually cause an infection. If the cheek teeth start to become overgrown they will start to push each other deeper into the rabbit’s jaw bones. The roots of the tooth will become inflamed and often infected, and abscesses or bumps will start to form on the surrounding areas.
There are three main causes of malocclusion in rabbits. As rabbit owners, we really only have control over one of these causes. Sometimes rabbits just get unlucky and have tooth problems.
Some rabbits just have bad genes. This is more common in mixed breed rabbits since sometimes their mixed genes cause their jaws to not line up quite right. In these cases, the malocclusion will become apparent by the time the young rabbit is 6 months old.
Misaligned from trauma or injury
Sometimes a rabbit will get their tooth caught in something, pulling it out of alignment. They could accidentally hit their head on something, or pull a little too hard on the cage bars. Once the teeth are out of alignment, it’s not likely that they will be corrected (there is no such thing as rabbit braces). So the rabbit will need to start getting their teeth trimmed periodically.
Not enough to chew on
If the rabbit does not get enough to chew on, whether from an unhealthy diet or not enough chew toys, they could end up with overgrown teeth. This is the only cause the we have control over. Once the rabbit’s teeth are trimmed back down to normal size, we can prevent it from happening again by giving the rabbit a healthy diet or plenty to chew on.
The signs of a malocclusion are pretty much the same as what you are looking for when you do a general dental check. They include:
- Weight loss from a decreased appetite
- A build up of saliva on the chin (rabbits don’t normally drool)
- Not eating any hay
- Lumps by the eyes or under the chin from teeth that are being pushed deeper into the jaw bones
- Discharge from the eye as the teeth are pushed up toward the tear ducts.
- Uneven front teeth
If you believe your rabbit has overgrown teeth, then you need to bring them to a rabbit-savvy vet to get treatment. Correcting your rabbits diet or giving a rabbit more chew toys will not fix a malocclusion once it’s already developed. Those are only preventative measures. Going forward you will have to get your rabbits teeth trimmed or, in some cases, removed completely.
Getting rabbit teeth trimmed
First the doctor will need to take x-rays, to see the full extent of the problem. Sometimes it’s just the incisors that have overgrown, and sometimes the molars will also be elongated.
If it’s just the incisors that are elongated, they can be trimmed with specialized equipment while the rabbit is awake. Rabbit nerves end at the very base of the tooth, where they meet the gums. So trimming a rabbit’s teeth is not painful for them. It would feel similar to what it feels for us when we trim our nails.
If the molars are also elongated, the process is a little more involved because the rabbit will have to be put under anesthesia to perform the operation.
If the area is infected or the rabbit is sick from not being able to eat, your doctor might advise to wait a couple weeks while you syringe feed your rabbit and help bring them to better health. Because the trimming procedure will require the vet to use anesthesia, it is much more dangerous to perform the surgery on a sick rabbit than on a healthy one.
Once your veterinarian determines that it’s safe, they will take the rabbit in to perform surgery to shave down the rabbit’s teeth.
It’s possible that after trimming your rabbit’s teeth, they will realign and start to grind each other down properly. But more likely, you will have to continue taking your rabbit to the vet every 2-6 months to get them retrimmed, depending on how fast the teeth grow.
Why you should not trim rabbit teeth on your own
Some people try to trim their rabbit’s incisor teeth at home on their own, but I don’t advise you try this. When you use clippers to trim rabbit teeth, you are likely to create small cracks along the length of the teeth. Bacteria can enter into these cracks and cause an infection or tooth decay.
When it might be necessary to get your rabbits front teeth removed
Sometimes when it’s just the rabbit’s incisor teeth that are overgrown, it might be more advantageous to remove the teeth completely. Rabbits are able to learn to eat very quickly, usually within 1-2 weeks, using just their cheek teeth, and will no longer have to go through the stress of getting their teeth trimmed all the time.
This procedure is probably not a good option for elderly or disabled rabbits. These rabbits are often struggling enough already, and having to learn to live life without their front teeth could be a very difficult challenge. It also becomes more and more dangerous to perform surgery on rabbits as they get older, so it would be better to get the incisors trimmed as necessary.
I first heard about this procedure only a couple years ago, when my friends rabbit developed an incisor malocclusion. He was a young rabbit, only about a year old, but his teeth were growing so fast that she had to bring him in for a trim every month. Her vet recommended the surgery, and afterward her boy was able to start eating normal food right away. He eats a little slower than he used to, but it’s been over a year since the surgery and he’s a very happy and healthy bunny.
Rabbits ears let them hear sounds over long distances and detect predators. Less obviously, rabbit ears also help regulate their body heat. There is a network of blood vessels in a rabbit’s ears that contract and expand to help the rabbit cool down or retain heat.
Bunnies twitch their noses to help them smell better. Rabbits don’t need to twitch their noses to breathe, and they will often stop wiggling while the rabbit sleeps. But while a rabbit’s nose is wiggling, it stimulates the scent organs to help the rabbit smell even the faintest scents.
- Harvey, Carolyn, DVM. “Oral Health in Rabbits.” House Rabbit Society, rabbit.org/journal/3-9/oral-health.html.
- “How many teeth does a rabbit have?” House Rabbit Society, rabbit.org/fun/answer8.html.
- Somjen, Kim, DVM. “Rabbit teeth malocclusion – detection and treatment.” Bell Mead Animal Hospital, Feb. 3, 2016, www.bellemeadanimalhospital.com/blog/rabbit-teeth-malocclusion-detection-and-treatment.