To Chew or Not to Chew? That is the Question!
The answer of course… To Chew!
“To fully understand why rabbits need to chew, we must first understand their oral anatomy”
Rabbits have a total of 28 teeth that grow continuously throughout life; this type of tooth is known as an elodont tooth. These teeth have open apices and never form true roots (aradicular). They have 6 incisors – 4 on the top, with two of the smaller incisors (peg teeth) situated behind the 2 incisors we see normally. These peg teeth actually rub against the lower incisors when the rabbit’s mouth is closed. They do not have canines but rather a space between the incisors and premolars known as a diastema. The premolars and molars are referred to as cheek teeth.
The upper cheek teeth (maxillary) naturally curve outward toward the cheek and the lower teeth (mandibular) curve inward toward the tongue. Imagine constantly growing teeth with curves… sounds like a potential recipe for disaster, right?! Well, it definitely can be.
Chewing is Natural to Rabbits
Overall, the most important reason to chew is to maintain good dentition. If you think of a rabbit in the wild, what are they likely doing? Chewing grass in a field. The act of chewing long-stemmed fiber promotes natural horizontal grinding of the cheek teeth which prevents overgrowth. That said – often the lack of proper chewing can lead to teeth problems.
A pelleted diet does not promote horizontal chewing and grinding. In the author’s opinion, pellets are the least important part of a rabbit’s diet, only providing vitamins that may be missed. The second reason rabbits chew is for enrichment. If they are bored, they will look for something to do and what better way to spend an afternoon than to round off all sharp corners of the floorboards! Redecorating the home is definitely a rabbit strength.
What Rabbits Should Chew
So, we know to chew… but what to chew? Natural, digestible fibers are recommended. Start with the diet. Long-stemmed, sun-dried hays are recommended as they may have more vitamin d and calcium to help with teeth formation and strength. Alfalfa contains the most calcium, but too much can cause other problems, so a variety of grass hays is recommended.
Second, bunched fresh greens, washed but, most importantly, NOT CUT, in an amount approximately the size of the bunny should be offered twice a day. The coarser the greens, the longer they will take to eat, the better the grinding, the more busywork, ie enrichment! Romaine, cilantro, parsley, dandelion, red/green leaf lettuce, mustard/collard greens, carrots tops are all great options. If your bunny is not used to eating fresh greens, gradually introduce these to avoid gi upset. You can also put your bunny in a safe enclosure outside on untreated grass and allow for natural grazing – just make sure you are using a safe flea preventative such as Revolution and never leave them unattended.
What else can we add to a bunny’s diet and enrichment schedule for chewing? Grass mats, natural willow balls, untreated pine cones, sisal rope, bamboo cane, coconut shell, and even cardboard and paper can be used as chew toys. These do not promote as much horizontal chewing but do help curb boredom. Natural sticks and twigs are ideal and free. Rabbits can chew apple, birch, maple, pear, blackberry, fir, hawthorn trees, hazel, spruce, raspberry. Make sure you cut them from a living tree and wash and dry them.
You can put the sticks in paper towel rolls or through cardboard boxes to make homemade toys, hide them on different levels of cages or play area to promote investigation, and even hang above them from cage bars to promote reaching and stretching. You could consider hiding them in a box of clean dirt if your bunny is a digger.
Negative reinforcement or punishment for chewing is never recommended. Redirection and offering appropriate toys and busy work really seem to be the key to promoting appropriate chewing. Positive reinforcement such as petting, praise, and or a tiny piece of fruit treat, while they are chewing the right stuff, is the best way to continue good behavior.
The author also does not recommend carbohydrates of any type – ie cereal sticks, nut, and seed sticks or processed rabbit treats that are carbohydrate-based. Remember, our answer was – To Chew! So, if for any reason, your bunny’s habits change with chewing, make sure you make an appointment to see your vet. May your baseboard corners forever continue to be right angles!