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Get lump in rabbit's jaw checked -- break in eating can be deadly

Over the past few weeks, Oscar has been developing a swelling on the right side of his lower jaw.

At first, it was small, about the size of a marble, and a bit soft, but the lump has blossomed to the size of a golf ball and has become quite firm. Early on, the swelling did not seem to bother the 5-year-old Netherlands dwarf rabbit, but now it appears painful to the touch and Oscar's appetite has decreased.

Oscar, who lives in a cage and is allowed to roam indoors, is fed commercial rabbit pellets, fresh greens and occasional rabbit yogurt snacks.

I dare say, it is about time Oscar had his lump checked. Those of you who follow this column know that I am not an advocate of "wait and see." This type of practice more times than not is a recipe for disaster. In Oscar's case, the fact that his appetite is reduced is very concerning.

Rabbits digest their food in a different way from dogs and cats. They are what we term hind-gut fermenters. They use their cecum, a pouchlike extension of the intestine, as a fermentation vat that breaks down plant material into digestible products that can be used for nutrition. Without the bacteria in the cecum, a rabbit's diet would be indigestible.

The key is to keep the bacteria happy and not let it grow into something that will cause problems.

This is precisely why rabbits eat all day long. They graze like horses, also hind-gut fermenters, in order to keep the bacteria content. Any significant break in their feeding could have potentially lethal consequences. Do not let your rabbit go without eating; even a period of 12 hours can have dire consequences.

Fortunately, in Oscar's case, he is eating, albeit less than normal. I think it is fair to assume that Oscar's reduced appetite stems from his lower jaw mass and therefore we need to focus on figuring out the cause.

After completion of a full physical examination, a fine needle aspiration of the mass will be needed to identify its makeup.

My experienced guess is that Oscar has an abscess on his right lower jaw. Unfortunately, it is not likely to be a simple abscess, one that can be lanced open, drained and treated with antibiotics. Instead, because of its location, I suspect this lump has an underlying cause associated with his teeth.

Rabbits can develop tooth root abscesses, which will develop into the jawbone and then out under the skin around the jaw. No amount of antibiotic treatment will cure these cases; they require dental surgery.

I like to radiograph these rabbits to identify the offending tooth or teeth, which can then be surgically removed and the abscess flushed.

This type of dental work is meticulous for several reasons, not the least of which is that a rabbit's mouth does not open very wide. This means the work is done in a very confined space. Prevention of this problem, then, is a far better solution.

Rabbit caretakers take note. This case is a precise illustration why, on an annual basis at least, you should have your rabbits' mouth evaluated by its veterinarian.

Jeff Kahler is a veterinarian in Modesto. Questions can be submitted to Your Pet in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.