When it comes to the canine or feline member of the family, animal services officers are sending a clear message: Don't take any chances.
Collars just don't cut it, says Tracey Stevens-Martin, humane education program manager for Contra Costa County Animal Services. If your pet shows up at a shelter with no identification, the chip could mean the difference between it living or dying.
"Animals lose collars like people lose items," she explains.
Injecting your animal with a rice-sized chip - a pet safety trend that's quickly catching on - may be the solution to the missing pet problem, she says. It works like this: The chips are embedded under the animal's skin between the shoulder blades, using a sterile applicator that causes the animal about as much pain as a shot. The owners must then register the microchip, providing contact information in case the dog or cat runs away or gets lost.
Should the animal be brought to a shelter or a clinic, workers can scan the animal and use the code to get in touch with the owner. The procedure, which will be offered at Danville's Emergency Preparedness Fair, usually runs about $20-$80. At the fair, microchipping and vaccinations will cost $20.
"It's a small price to pay for a lot of love," Stevens-Martin says.
Carrie Delbonta, clerical supervisor for county animal services, remembers one particular black cat - lost from a Concord home and found in Danville - who was returned to her owners after six years of being away, thanks to the chip. Tick Tack, a domestic cat who was lost in 1997, started hanging around a Danville home in 2003.
A kind Danville man was in the habit of feeding her for a few weeks, but then took her into animal services. That's when they scanned the cat and called the family to let them know the whereabouts of their long lost feline.
"They were shocked," Delbonta recalls. "They assumed the cat had died."
As fate would have it, the family had moved on to another pet, who had died just one week before the phone call. The whole thing seemed meant to be, Delbonta said.
For pet owners interested in the procedure, it's offered at veterinary clinics, the East Bay SPCA and Contra Costa Animal Services, and at-home kits can be purchased at pet stores, although they are not as common.
"One woman was able to reunite with her cat after six years," says DeVries, who makes phone calls to pet owners informing them of their found pets.
Most often, pets go missing when their owners vacation or leave town. Animals tend to look for their loved ones and get lost in the process, animal services officers say.
"If familiar faces aren't there, it's a pet's instinct to go looking for their families," Stevens-Martin says.
That's the most typical lost pet story, but officers hear about all kinds of strange cases. In one instance, a West Coast cat hopped a cargo train and made it all the way to Boston, where a microchip blew his East Coast cover, Stevens-Martin recalls. Animal services scanned the pet and found its home to be thousands of miles away.
The largest, most looming reason for the general public to invest in the chip, however, has more to do with what people would rather not think about: emergencies. The No. 1 reason people should get their pets chipped is in preparation for natural or manmade disasters, Stevens-Martin says.
In the midst of Hurricane Katrina, for example, thousands of pets were left behind and lost. Hundreds of people even refused to leave, despite treacherous conditions, because they didn't want to ditch their furry friends.
"People didn't want to evacuate because they didn't want to abandon their pets," says Greg Gilbert, Emergency Services Manager for the town of Danville.
Looking forward, animal advocates are working on an initiative called "No Pets Left Behind" that would set up animals in shelters in times of crisis. But in order for these emergency shelters to be efficient, the chipping is crucial, they say.
Today, about 9 percent of microchipped pets are reunited with their owners in the country annually. And some cities are now considering making the chips, which went mainstream in 2004, mandatory.
But even with high pet reunification rates, there are still some glitches in the system.
Since the technology has only recently emerged, there is no universal product. This means, chips implanted early on don't always match up when it counts.
As several companies push to become the major provider for a rapidly growing product, the lack of compatibility has caused anger and sadness for some families.
"It has been a problem in the past," Stevens-Martin says. "Because of technical advances, there's always someone coming up with something bigger and better. It would be nice if everybody would stay universal but the industry is competitive."
There are three major brands of microchips that vary in frequency from 125 to 134.2 kilohertz. Low frequency detectors don't always pick up on the high ones and vice versa.
In 2005, Congress directed the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service to work on universal compatibility and some progress has been made in the past two years.
Today, the two largest companies that dominate the market - AVID and HomeAgain - are set up to sense each other's presence, but cannot pick up on one another's code.
Additional problems occur when people forget to register their pets or fail to update their contact information when they move out of state or change phone numbers.
Even with a few more hurdles to jump, the system works far more often than it fails. With nearly one out of every five dogs lost or stolen each year, animal services representatives say the vast majority of lost pets with chips are returned safely to their owners.
And who knows where the trend will go from here? Vets in Northern California are finding that, lately, equestrians have been requesting that their horses get chipped. Scientists at the forefront of the technology have even predicted that parents just may start chipping their kids.
It sounds a little Big Brother, but animal services officers don't see it being that far from reality.
In 2003, the British Broadcasting Network reported on a family that planned to have their 11-year-old girl microchipped with a tracking device in order to prevent her from being abducted. While human beings are another, far more controversial issue entirely, the point is to keep those you love safe, Stevens-Martin says.
After all, these days, dogs and cats are part of the family.
"I highly recommend it. It's sad to know a loving animal can't be returned home," she says.
Vaccinations and microchipping will be available from 10 a.m.-noon, tomorrow, Sept. 15, for $20 at the Emergency Preparedness Fair at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Old Orchard Road. The fair will run from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
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