By Jean Silva
Harrison was a sweet tempered bunny who never ate hay or vegetables. He ate his pellets and maintained his weight. As he grew older, Harrison would only eat the yellow pellets from his Kaytee Exact. He began to go off his food and would only eat pumpkin or softened pellets. Harrison had molar spurs.
Nick was a skinny, friendly boy. Nick showed a lot of interest in food, but he always left some of his food uneaten. He snipped the leaves from parsley and cilantro and left the stems. Then BUNS volunteer Heidi Greer noticed that Nick chewed with his mouth open. Nick had molar spurs.
FooFoo had sweet nature despite dental problems. His front teeth were damaged in a fall and were removed. After he healed, he was still very, very selective about his food. He ran up to his food, but would refuse all but a few items and only ate a little of those. His right cheek was noticeably larger than his left, but it wasn’t abscessed. FooFoo had molar spurs.
Beaver was a big white guy whose face was matted and soaked with drool — classic symptoms of molar spurs. Beaver loved to eat. Beaver had molar spurs.
Ebony went off his food at age 6. He refused his favorite: carrots. Treatment for GI stasis would start him eating, but he didn’t eat much and would stop eating if the treatment stopped. Ebony had molar spurs.
I knew about molar spurs, but in my six years at the shelter I had never found one. Then this year I found five cases. Now, I wonder if I have been missing the signs of molar spurs all along. Molar spurs cannot be seen without a special instrument, so they are easy to miss in our monthly examination. Here is what I have learned.
Rabbits have 28 teeth that grow their entire life. In the back of the mouth equally distributed between left and right are 12 molars and 10 pre-molars. These are called cheek teeth. We do not know how fast the cheek teeth grow; we do know that front teeth grow four to five inches per year. Both the front teeth and the cheek teeth are kept at normal lengths by the wear caused when the teeth rub against their opposing partner. When the teeth are out of alignment, overgrowth occurs. In the case of cheek teeth, elongated tooth enamel points can develop. These points are called molar spurs. These can points grow toward the tongue and toward the cheek. The points can cause painful sores and cuts. The points can also interfere with the use of the tongue and chewing.
You can help prevent molar spurs by feeding your rabbit long fibered plants with high silicate content such as hay and grass. The side-to-side motion required to chew long vegetable fibers wears the molars down evenly. Rabbits should chew hay or grass for several hours each day. Rabbits who eat only pellets are more likely to develop molar spurs than those whose diet includes lots of hay or grass.
There are three causes of molar spurs; genetics, injury, and age. Spurs can result from genes that cause the teeth to be misaligned. Such spurs can present fairly early in a rabbit’s life. Spurs may also result from changes in the mechanics of the mouth due to injury. These spurs will present several months after the injury or surgery. Third, spurs can result from changes in the cheek teeth due to normal aging. Such spurs present later in life. In older bunnies the roots of the teeth can also extend further into the upper or lower jawbone; they can impinge on the tear ducts causing runny eyes.
The symptoms of molar spurs include:
- Changes in food preference (especially, but not always, from harder to softer foods or to a few preferred foods)
- Showing interest in food but not eating or eating only small amounts
- Weight loss
- Swelling or pain at the jaw line, under the chin or in the cheek
- Bad odor from the mouth
- Runny Eyes
- Grinding teeth
- Reclusive or grumpy behavior
It is always important to notice changes in your rabbit’s diet or behavior. Changes in eating patterns can result from dental problems like malocclusion or molar spurs, intestinal problems or other health problems. Grinding teeth usually means your rabbit is in pain. Behavior changes can be another sign of discomfort or pain. If you see one or more of these symptoms describe them to your vet and ask for an examination that includes the molars.
Your vet can remove molar spurs. The rabbit is anesthetized and the mouth propped open. Spurs are then removed with a dental drill or blunt nosed file. Antibiotics may be prescribed if the sharp tooth points have damaged the tongue, gums or cheek. The rabbit’s eating should return to normal in a couple of days. The procedure will need to be repeated from time to time as the spurs re-grow.
Left untreated, molar spurs can cause your bunny to go into GI stasis. They can also result in abscessed cheeks and teeth which are much more difficult and costly to treat than spurs.
As usual the best advice is to go to your vet as soon as you notice a problem.
“Oral Health in Rabbits.” Carolynn Harvey, DVM. www.rabbit.org/journal/3-9/oral-health.html
“Causes and Treatment of Common Dental Problems in Rabbits.” Jeffrey R. Jenkins, DVM. http://bunnybunch.org/Causes%20and%20Treatment%20of%20Common%20Dental%20Problems%20in%20Rabbits.pdf