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A healthy mouth equals a happy rabbit
Did you know that February is National Pet Dental Health Month? A healthy mouth makes for a happy pet but it is not just dogs and cats who benefit from strong choppers. Rabbits and guinea pigs have special dental needs to consider as well. Dr. Jennifer Graham, assistant professor of zoological companion animal medicine, provides tips for pet owners on how to keep these pint-sized smiles healthy.
February 18, 2014

Tips for keeping your bunny dental disease free

There is increasing awareness that proper dental care is important for our pets and this certainly applies to our pint-size companions.  In fact, dental disease is one of the most common problems seen by veterinarians in rabbit and guinea pig patients, says Jennifer Graham, D.V.M., DABVP, DACZM, an assistant professor of zoological companion animal medicine at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

“These little guys can actually die from dental disease,” she explains. “A rabbit’s anatomy is more similar to a horse than a dog or cat. They need to be continuously eating so any issues with their teeth could lead to big problems such as a systemic illness.”

The main dental concern for rabbits and rodents is teeth overgrowth. Interestingly, rabbits have incisors that grow approximately 2.2 millimeters per week. In the wild, rabbits naturally file down their teeth by feeding on grasses and grinding the plant material with their cheek teeth.

Incorporating high-fiber, quality hay into a pet rabbit’s diet is very important to keeping their teeth healthy, says Dr. Graham. In addition, annual exams and screenings for any genetic conditions that could predispose a rabbit to oral health problems should be undertaken by owners as a preventative measure.

There are a few tell-tale signs of dental disease that owners should look for: weight loss, excessive saliva (prolonged saliva contact on the skin can cause contact dermatitis), a lackluster or poor quality coat, abscesses on the face, and/or diarrhea.

What should a pet owner do if they suspect the onset of dental disease? Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for an oral examination. An examination in combination with radiographs and other imaging techniques such as CT, MRI or endoscopy are helpful in characterizing the extent of disease.  Although the oral cavity can be examined without anesthetizing the patient, an exam or imaging done under light sedation or general anesthesia will give a veterinarian a better chance of detecting lesions and identifying the source of the problem.

“As you can imagine, most patients don’t tolerate a full examination of the mouth while they are awake so sedation allows us to be more thorough,” says Dr. Graham. “But it’s important to make an assessment of the individual patient’s circumstance or health history, and sometimes we modify protocol as a result,” said Dr. Graham.

Sungold, for example, is an older rabbit who sees Dr. Graham every two weeks for a teeth filing because of a dental condition and due to a previous anesthetic complication she isn’t sedated during the procedure. Sungold’s easy-going temperament allows Dr. Graham to tuck her into a swaddle (affectionately dubbed the “bunny burrito”) and perform the necessary dental work.

Sungold is Dr. Graham’s only patient who doesn’t require anesthesia for treatment to the back of her mouth. While this is a rare circumstance, dental work isolated to the front of the mouth is a possibility without anesthesia.

“There are concerns with anesthesia for all animals but veterinarians weigh the benefits against the risks,” Dr. Graham says. “A patient with a life-threatening abscess or a serious health concern may require a different approach than one with minor dental disease. The decision is made with the patient’s owner, factoring in what needs to be done and how to best address the issues.”

Depending on the type of oral problem plaguing an exotic pet, a veterinarian has a variety of tools to use in treating the problem.

  • Teeth trimming: Most dental disorders involve trimming the affected teeth, especially in the case of misaligned teeth (malocclusion). A high-speed dental drill provides the most accurate method for trimming teeth with the least amount of trauma. Depending on the rate of tooth growth and the degree of malocclusion, trimming may need to be performed as often as every three to six weeks.
  • Dental extractions: Dental extractions can be useful in the rare case of serious incisor problems. However, this procedure can be traumatic and painful for the pet. Extensive supportive care and pain control should be provided if an extraction is necessary. And in some cases, pets may need a feeding tube to help with eating until the extraction site is healed.
  • Abscess management: Abscess management involves treating the underlying dental disease in combination with specific abscess therapy. It is recommended to surgical remove the abscess rather than simply opening and draining the mass. Long-term use of local or systemic antibiotics may be required to treat this condition if the abscess cannot be completely removed.

These treatments can be used to successfully manage dental disease in rabbits and rodents. To maintain good oral health for your exotic pets, early intervention and treatment provide the best chance for success, and long-term and follow-up care may be required for the best quality of life.

“My advice to pet owners is to get educated on oral health and obtain information from reputable sources. Work with a veterinarian who is familiar with the unique anatomy of your pet’s species. And the number one thing is maintain a high-quality diet for your pet,” says Dr. Graham. “Prevention is the best way to treat dental disease.”