If you’re paying close attention to your rabbit, you might notice some unusual behaviors. One of these behaviors that is unique to rabbits is tooth grinding. You might see their whiskers vibrate, or hear the soft sound your rabbit makes when they grind their teeth together. Unlike in humans, where tooth grinding can lead to dental issues, this is a normal and good thing to see in rabbits.
Generally, rabbit tooth grinding (also called purring) is a positive behavior that means your rabbit feels comfortable and happy. Rabbits will gently grind their teeth when they are sleeping or being petted. However, if the tooth grinding is a loud clicking or popping sound it could be a sign of pain or tooth discomfort.
To understand the difference between the two types of tooth grinding, it’s important to take note of the other clues in your rabbit’s body language. If they show signs of being comfortable and relaxed, you can bet that your rabbit is purring. On the other hand, if you see other behaviors that indicate pain or stress, the tooth sounds may be a sign to get your rabbit medical attention.
Normal rabbit teeth-grinding behavior (purring)
It is normal and healthy for rabbits to grind their teeth periodically throughout the day. Unlike humans, rabbits have open-rooted teeth that are constantly growing. The food that rabbits eat (especially hay) and their instinctual chewing behaviors help to keep their teeth from overgrowing and causing health issues. Rabbit teeth grinding can be beneficial to their dental health and, at the very least, is not harmful to their teeth in any way.
Normal teeth-grinding behavior in rabbits is when they gently rub their teeth together. You will see their whiskers twitch, and you might feel a vibration if you are touching the rabbit’s head. In most cases, you won’t hear any noise, but if you are sitting close to your rabbit you might hear a soft chattering sound.
This behavior is called purring. It’s a completely different mechanic than a cat’s purr, since it does not involve vocal cords, but it means pretty much the same thing. When you see your rabbit grinding their teeth like this, it means they feel relaxed. Generally, they will be sitting in a comfortable position, not zooming around excitedly. This is one of the low-key ways to know your rabbit is happy.
When to expect your rabbit to grind their teeth
As I mentioned, this is a relaxed behavior for rabbits. That means you’re generally not going to see your rabbit purring when they are zooming and binkying around. Instead, it’s a more subtle behavior that you’ll notice when your rabbit has calmed down for the moment. These are some of the main scenarios you’ll notice rabbit tooth grinding:
- When they are sitting comfortably. Whenever a rabbit is sitting in a comfortable position, there is the chance that you’ll see them purring. I notice this most often when my rabbits sit down in a ray of sunlight coming through the window.
- When they are sleeping. Occasionally, you will see rabbits who are sleeping comfortably grind their teeth together. Sometimes the rabbit will actually be asleep, and sometimes they’re just getting comfortable before taking their afternoon nap.
- When you pet them. Most rabbits love to be petted if you do it right. They’ll let you know your massage is relaxing by melting into the floor and grinding their teeth together. You’ll usually feel the vibration in your rabbit’s skull when you pet them on the head.
- When they groom each other. If you have multiple bonded rabbits, you will often see them grooming each other. The rabbit who is being groomed will start to purr by grinding their teeth to let the other rabbit know they enjoy the attention.
Abnormal tooth grinding behavior (Gritting their teeth)
Not all tooth grinding in rabbits is a good sign. The gentle purring that you’ll notice is a sign of pleasure and relaxation, but rabbits can also grit their teeth together in pain. The behavior may look similar, but it’s a sign that your rabbit is not feeling well or is highly stressed.
Teeth gritting in rabbits, also called teeth chattering, is a loud grinding sound that rabbits make when they grit their teeth together. I’ve heard it sound like a loud click or a grating instead of the gentle sound they make when purring. You can even hear the tooth gritting sound if you are not sitting close to your rabbit.
Most often, this is a sound that results from abnormal tooth growth that is causing the rabbit discomfort. However, it’s a behavior you might see as a result of any kind of stress, pain, or discomfort.
Teeth gritting is not a common behavior in rabbits. In most cases, if you see your rabbit grinding their teeth together, it’s the good behavior that means your rabbit is happy. If your rabbit is gritting their teeth out of pain, you will always see other signs of discomfort in your rabbit. If you’re unfamiliar with the sound of teeth-gritting, you’ll need to rely on your rabbit’s body language to tell the difference between good and bad teeth grinding.
Other signs of pain or discomfort in rabbits include (visit my article for a more detailed explanation of these symptoms):
- Sitting in a hunched position
- A decreased appetite
- Lack of energy
- Small or no poops
- Lack of balance
- Snotty nose
- Mouth breathing
When to expect your rabbit to grit their teeth
When rabbits grit their teeth, there will always be some kind of distressed body language to help you know it’s not the normal tooth purring. In addition to the loud clicking or grating noise, look for evidence of these situations:
- When they are stressed or anxious. Some rabbits will grit their teeth together when they feel extremely anxious. You will see signs of fear and anxiety in your rabbit, including rigid body structure and alert ears. Learn more about the behavior of an anxious rabbit.
- When they are in pain. A rabbit who is feeling sick will grit their teeth together in pain. Look for symptoms of common rabbit illnesses, such as GI Stasis and Snuffles.
- When their teeth are overgrown. Since rabbit teeth continue to grow for their whole lifetime, some of their teeth can become overgrown. This can be uncomfortable and even painful for rabbits, so they will grit their teeth together. The uneven teeth will make that loud clicking noise that you hear.
If you believe your rabbit is gritting their teeth out of pain, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your rabbit veterinarian to determine the cause. Sometimes a rabbit will have an underlying condition causing them pain or discomfort (such as arthritis), that can be treated with the right medication. Rabbits are pretty fragile animals, so it’s best to always take signs of sickness seriously and get them the medical help they need.
Other signs of dental problems in rabbits
Tooth problems are actually one of the most common health issues that pet rabbits have to deal with. If they don’t get enough hay in their diet, rabbits can end up with malocclusions (overgrown teeth). The teeth will grow too long, then they will become misaligned and prevent the rabbit from eating normally. If this happens, the teeth will have to be trimmed by a veterinarian or even removed completely.
To detect any signs of dental issues, you should look for these symptoms:
- Abscesses on their cheeks
- Teary eyes
- A change in eating habits (dropping food out of their mouth or refusing to eat food they previously liked)
- Weight loss
How to give your rabbit an at-home tooth check
While you cannot give your rabbit a full tooth exam at home, you can give them a basic tooth check to catch any obvious signs of dental issues. I recommend doing this simple tooth check every other week or so, just to see if there are any changes to your rabbit’s dental health.
- When you are petting your rabbit, spend a little extra time massaging their cheeks. Feel around the jawline and cheekbones to find anything that feels unusual. You’re looking for significant swelling or large bumps on their cheeks.
- Gently pull your rabbit’s lips back to get a quick look at their incisors. While petting your rabbit, take your thumb and index finger and pull back your rabbit’s lips. Look to make sure the front teeth are even and don’t’ appear to be too long. They should overlap the back teeth a little bit, but should not be curling, and there should not be a gap between the teeth.
- Look for any other signs of dental issues. This includes drooling, teary eyes, weight loss, and unusual eating habits that were listed earlier.
Annual vet exams can help detect tooth problems early
Even though you can do a basic tooth check at home, you cannot see your rabbit back teeth without special instruments that are used by veterinarians. It’s highly recommended that rabbits see a qualified veterinarian annually so that they can have a close look and make sure your rabbit is in good health.
Going for regular rabbit exams can help you to detect any issues with your rabbit’s teeth, weight, or other health issues early so that they don’t become a serious health problem. It will also help you to develop a relationship with a veterinarian so you can get their advice if you’re ever unsure of behaviors or symptoms that your rabbit is showing.
How to tell the difference between tooth purring and tooth chattering
If you are new to caring for rabbits, you might be concerned that you won’t be able to tell the difference between good and bad tooth grinding behaviors. Use this guide to help you determine if the body language you’re seeing is purring or tooth chattering so that you can know if your rabbit is happy, if they need a less-stressful environment to live in, or if they need medical help.
- Bad tooth chattering is louder. The main way to tell the difference between good tooth purring and bad tooth chattering is by listening to the sound. Tooth grating is more pronounced and sounds almost painful, whereas purring is often inaudible.
- Does your rabbit look relaxed? A rabbit who looks relaxed sitting or sleeping is almost definitely purring, not gritting their teeth. Pet your rabbit until they start to grind their teeth together. That is how your rabbit sounds and looks when they are purring. Use that as a reference point so that you can detect when the tooth grinding sounds are different.
- Is your rabbit scared? If your rabbit’s body language is showing signs of fear or anxiety, they are likely making the bad tooth chattering sounds because of stress. Some signs of fear include thumping, a rigid body (frozen in place), ears that are straight up and alert, and a rabbit who is quick to run away and hide whenever there’s a new sound or movement in the room.
- Check for any dental problems. Go through the steps in the previous section to try to determine if there are any obvious signs of dental issues. Observe your rabbit while they are eating too. If they seem to have difficulty, such as constantly dropping food from their mouth, they likely have tooth problems that need to be addressed by a medical professional.
- Is your rabbit’s behavior unusual? Rabbits are very good at hiding signs of illness. In the wild this would have protected them from being picked off by predators, but as pets that means it’s difficult to tell when a rabbit is sick. Any kind of unusual behavior, from unexplained aggression to sitting in a different position, should be noted and taken seriously. If our rabbit is grinding their teeth while showing these odd behaviors, they may have some kind of underlying illness that needs attention.
If you are ever unsure about what behavior you are seeing, it doesn’t hurt to bring your rabbit to the vet for a checkup anyway. If your rabbit is fine, the vet will let you know. If not, you’ll be glad you got them there sooner rather than later.