At our 4-H meeting Friday night, we went around the room and I asked the kids what kind of pets they have and if they ever have looked at their pet's teeth. The variety of pets included guinea pigs, horses, sheep, cows and goats besides the usual dogs and cats. I think only one or two responded yes, they had looked in their pet's mouth.

I am going to ask those of you who are pet owners the same question and I bet the results are the same, unless of course your pet's breath is bad enough to clear a room. Maybe then you would be afraid to look.

So, what is the big deal about cat breath? Well, it can be a sign or a precursor to a whole host of other conditions. Dental disease starts out because a pet does not brush its teeth like we do. Add in the fact that many pets only eat soft food and don't even get the abrasive benefit of dry food and the problem is compounded. Bacteria grow in the plaque that accumulates along the gum lines and can result in gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums. Pockets can form around the gum line or around the roots of teeth and literally cause teeth to rot out.

The bad breath that results is only the tip of the iceberg. That bacteria growing in the mouth can now travel through the bloodstream and result in kidney, liver, heart and lung damage. Little dogs tend to have more dental disease than larger ones and cats are very prone to what are called cervical neck lesions or holes in the teeth at the gum line.

There is a lot more available to us to prevent dental disease and even ways of preventing tooth loss in pets. Things that you can do at home are brushing your pet's teeth with a toothbrush and pet toothpaste that does not foam like ours. There are rawhide chews that are treated with enzymes and of course Greenies ® which my dogs LOVE. Your dog or cat's teeth can be scaled with a ultrasonic scaler and polished to slow plaque buildup. Of course, this is usually done under anesthesia as most cats and dogs won't have it any other way. There are board certified veterinary dentists now who perform root canals, etc on pets.

For those of you with horses, I am sure that most of you are well aware of a procedure called "floating" done to file sharp points off of horse's teeth as they get older. Horses can even develop colic, a serious abdominal pain attack that can be fatal if there teeth are not maintained as they can't chew their food properly.

A few points of dental trivia:

1. Ruminants (animals who use multiple stomachs to digest their food like cows, sheep, goats, llamas, deer) don't have upper incisors in the front like us. They have a hard dental pad that they use to pull off grass, twigs, etc.

2. Dogs have 28 deciduous or "baby" teeth and 42 permanent ones. Cats have 26 and 30 respectively.

3. Signs of dental disease besides bad breath include trouble eating, swollen gums, swelling of the face under the eye and loose teeth.

Ask your veterinarian about your pet's teeth and what can be done to keep them healthy. Remember- your pet depends on you.

Dr. Kimberly McClure is a Bethany resident with a veterinary practice in town, Country Compainions.