Pet Vet: Rabbit's jaw pain likely a tooth issue

February 9, 2015

Paula has a rabbit named Oscar. He is an indoor bunny with free roam of the house, as he is litter-box trained. He is 3 years old and is on an excellent diet consisting primarily of Timothy hay with a small amount of Timothy hay-based rabbit pellets given daily. Recently, Paula has noticed swelling on Timothy’s left lower jaw. It does not seem to have changed his attitude about life, though recently he acted like the area was painful when touched by Paula. This increased Paula’s concern as a result.

The first thing that comes to mind when I see a bunny with a swelling associated with any portion of its jaw is a tooth root abscess. Rabbits have incredibly long teeth for their size and these teeth grow as long as the rabbit is alive. Rabbits eating a normal diet consisting primarily of hay and grasses naturally wear their teeth down appropriate to the growth rate of those teeth, thus keeping a balance.

Sometimes one or more of these teeth can develop pockets of bacterial infection between the root and the bone and an abscess can develop. This is most common in the premolar and molar teeth along the upper and lower jaw lines as opposed to the front teeth, called incisors. A tooth root abscess left alone in a rabbit can lead to bone destruction and can be very painful. Eventually, the rabbit will usually stop eating because of the pain and soon after will die.

Timothy needs a thorough evaluation with his veterinarian to determine if he has developed a tooth root abscess. This will involve a physical exam and probably some radiographs of the jaw in the area of the mass. We sometimes will introduce a needle into the mass to remove some cells for microscopic examination to aid in the diagnosis. It is also very important to culture the material from the mass for bacteria to determine what bacteria, if any, is involved and what antibiotic is appropriate.

Unfortunately, if Timothy is dealing with a tooth root abscess, antibiotics alone are highly unlikely to cure the problem. In fact, tooth root abscesses in rabbits can be very difficult to resolve.

There are several reasons for that difficulty, but a main one is the fact that rabbits have very reduced mouth openings.

Normally, with a dog or cat for example, when we are dealing with a tooth root abscess, we can, under a general anesthetic, easily open their mouth wide and either perform a root canal an abscessed root or remove the tooth. This approach is simply not possible in a rabbit.

Sometimes, after locating the abscessed tooth with the benefit of dental radiographs, we can approach it from outside the jaw, either underneath the lower jaw or above the upper jaw and remove the offending tooth. Another surgical procedure that can provide relief involves opening up the abscess and cleaning out the pus, then placing special antibiotic-impregnated beads into the area and closing up the skin around them. This allows high concentrations of antibiotic at the sight of the problem and can bring about resolution.

Obviously, it is time to have Timothy examined. Hopefully, his jaw mass can be addressed successfully and he can live on free of any discomfort or pain.



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