A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

If rabbits don't chew constantly, will their teeth grow to incredible lengths, causing them to starve?

June 15, 1990

Dear Cecil:

This may seem like a stupid question, but hey, I have no pride. Our psychotic dwarf rabbit, Slick, has an unusual urge to chew on things. He does it pretty indiscriminately and I have some chewed up T-shirts to prove it. Annoying as this is, my sister claims if he didn't do it, he would die. She showed me a gruesome picture of a woodchuck with incredibly long and deformed chompers, and says that's what would happen to Slick if he didn't chew. Is this true? How can I remedy this?

Cecil replies:

You may think this question is stupid, Josh, but it's Kierkegaard compared to some of the stuff I get. Like the three dweebs who mailed me a dirtball from under the bed so I could tell them what was in it. (Answer: dirt.) Sometimes when I open the mail I feel like I should wear rubber gloves.

Rabbits and a few other critters have teeth that grow continuously throughout their lives — in the middle-size breeds, about five inches per year for the upper incisors (front teeth) and about eight inches for the lower ones. The teeth abrade away against one another, giving the rabbit a constantly sharp edge.

Once in a while you get a rabbit with a malocclusion — typically the world's worst case of underbite. Since the top and bottom teeth don't meet, they don't wear away against one another and grow to truly horrifying lengths. This prevents the rabbit from eating, threatening it with starvation.

The only treatment, according to my rabbit handbook, is to "cut [the teeth] back to normal length with sharp side-cutting pliers every three or four weeks," an operation that on Cecil's Scale of Grossness is maybe one notch below sheep gelding. Luckily, normal rabbit teeth are self-adjusting, given an adequate supply of chewing material. T-shirts, however, aren't an essential part of the mix. You ever think of trying, say, a carrot?

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