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Why do rabbits get abscesses and dental disease?

We need to look at the rabbit’s physiology to understand why they get so many dental issues. Rabbits have “open-rooted teeth”; this means that they have a huge “reserve crown” of tooth below their gum-line – we cannot see it, but it is there! Essentially, they have a lot of tooth waiting to rise up into the mouth, hidden below the gum. This means that their teeth are constantly erupting (getting longer) into the mouth.

This rabbit-quirk often results in bad teeth for poor Bugs Bunny. Rabbits can have congenital or acquired dental disease:

  • Congenital dental disease is a result of being born with teeth in bad positions; this can mean big gaps between teeth where there shouldn’t be, technically known as a pathological “diastema”. These can allow for food to pack between teeth and gather bacteria. Some rabbits are born with abnormalities in the bite, such as a short jaw or a long jaw. This means that their jaw action isn’t effective at grinding down teeth, resulting in tooth over-growths and injuries to the mouth from spiky, long teeth, and food gathering where it shouldn’t.
  • Acquired dental disease arises from teeth getting too long as a result of poor management; when rabbits don’t have a suitable high-forage diet, their teeth don’t grind away at the same rate as they erupt. This results in over-growths; long teeth make it hard for rabbits to move their jaws as they are meant to, and spiky teeth can cause ulcers to the gums and mucosa of the cheeks – ouch! Other conditions can include cancers (neoplasia) of the gums, teeth and mucosa of the mouth, or metabolic diseases which result in poor-quality teeth and bones.

What’s up, doc? Why does dental disease require a vet?

Abscesses and dental disease cause pain to your rabbit, resulting in a worse quality of life, and going off eating. When rabbits don’t eat, they are more at risk of “gut stasis”, which is potentially fatal. So, dental disease is a serious matter for your pet’s quality of life, and life itself.

Here comes the gross bit… When rabbits have dental disease, food and bacteria can gather in pockets in their gums and between their teeth. This can result in an immune reaction of white-blood cells, fighting an infection. Dogs and cats have enzymes to essentially liquefy dead immune cells which the body has produced to fight infection, therefore, their pus is more liquid. Rabbits, however, form “caseous” pus, i.e. thick, paste-like pus, as they aren’t able to break down these dead white cells. This means that if your cat gets an abscess from, for example, being bitten by another cat, your veterinarian can “lance” it; they can make a small skin incision to allow the pus to drain. In rabbits, they cannot do this. Instead, the pus must be scooped out, bit by bit…

Well, that was disgusting… So, how can we treat abscesses in rabbits?

  1. Medical management

Bacteria which produce pus and lead to abscesses in rabbits tend to be a mixture of “anaerobic” and “aerobic” bacteria. This means that the nasty bacteria causing abscesses in our rabbits’ mouths are made up of some bacteria which live in oxygen-free environments, and some bacteria which need oxygen to survive. Bacteria can also be divided into “gram-negative” and “gram-positive” bacteria, depending on whether they have a cell-wall. Confusing, eh? Therefore, if your veterinarian decides that your rabbit requires antibiotics, they must choose a drug that can tackle all of these different types of bacteria. Antibiotics can be tricky in rabbits, as their guts have such finely-balanced “good bacteria” (“symbiotic bacteria”), which help them to break-down their high-forage food, such as grass and hay. Using a medicine which kills a broad range of bacteria will also kill some bacteria we don’t want to, such as these useful gut bacteria.

It’s difficult to get this balance right – which is one of the reasons you can’t buy antibiotics over the counter!

  1. Surgical management.

Depending on the general health of your rabbit, and the location and the severity of the abscess, your rabbit may require surgery. As rabbit abscesses cannot be successfully lanced in the vast majority of cases, they may need to undergo a surgical removal and flushing of the wound.

Best wishes for your rabbit to always have a mouth-full of hay, rather than something nasty!

“ ‘Guess how much I love you?’ Little Nutbrown Hare said. ‘Oh, I don’t think I could guess that.’ Replied Big Nutbrown Hare. ” – Sam McBratney.