One of the most common problems owners have with pet rabbits is overgrown incisors. Not just a cosmetic issue, this problem – if not dealt with – can result in serious conditions that can be harmful, even deadly, to your pet rabbit.
The incisors are the front teeth in a rabbit’s mouth and most rabbits have six of these: four at the top and two on the bottom. These teeth are essential for feeding – they are what the rabbit uses to grab and sever their food. Unlike the front teeth on many other animals, a rabbit’s incisors continue to grow throughout its life and so requires wear and tear to keep it down at a manageable length. This tends not to be a problem for rabbits in the wild but can be a common problem in pet rabbits.
Rabbits in the Wild Vs. Captivity
Rabbits in the wild rarely suffer from overgrown incisors because their natural diet provides regular chewing and gnawing of hard, fibrous foods. In captivity, however, a pet rabbit’s diet does not usually provide enough of this kind of food to keep the incisors in good shape. This leads to frequent cases of overgrown incisors. In severe cases, overgrown incisors can cause great distress and pain – they can grow so long that your rabbit is unable to feed properly and therefore starves to death; they can slowly lever the jaws apart as they grow or if one incisor is not opposed by another as it grows (e.g.. such as when the opposing incisor falls out), then it can grow until it locks into the opposite jaw. All these conditions can be very painful and even fatal for your pet.
Preventing Overgrown Incisors
Like many things, overgrown incisors can be avoided by good prevention practices. In this case, simply feeding your pet rabbit hard food can make a huge difference. This means feeding the stalks of vegetables – such as the tough, fibrous bottoms of celery and carrots, to help grind their incisors down. Any greenstuffs, such as Kale or Brussell Sprouts should be fed on the stem and root vegetables should ideally be fed whole, as long as the rabbit is big enough to manage them.
In addition, it is good to provide your pet rabbit with a gnawing block, such as a newly-cut log with the bark still on it. This will encourage your rabbit to gnaw on the wood and wear his incisors down. Don’t worry about splinters – rabbits have a mechanism where the cheeks are dawn into the space between the insciros and cheek teeth, thus forming a barrier and cancelling any danger of swallowing splinters.
Trimming Overgrown Incisors
If you have neglected your rabbit’s teeth for too long (or you have rescued a rabbit in a neglected state), you may need to have its overgrown incisors trimmed. In some cases, even with the correct food and availability of a gnawing block, some rabbits will still be more prone to overgrown incisors. For example, rabbits born with mis-aligned teeth end up with abnormal tooth growth and wear & tear – a condition called malocclusion. Often this is due to a genetic defect which causes an abnormally short upper jaw. What this means is that the continuously growing upper and lower incisors can never meet properly as the rabbit chews – and without this proper “bite”, the incisors can never wear each other down. So even with the right types of food and a gnawing block, these rabbits will suffer from overgrown incisors. If the incisors are not trimmed in this case, the continuously growing teeth can result in considerable trauma to the lining of the mouth and the tongue.
If you have a rabbit whose incisors require trimming, it is best to take them to a vet who specialises in rabbits and has experience with the clipping procedure.