I remember when my cat ran away. It was one of the most helpless feelings I’ve ever experienced. Bonnie was an indoor girl and had no experience with the harsh realities of the outdoor world, everything from coyotes to cold weather. She had never shown any interest in sneaking outside until one day she did.
I went through old photos until I had a good close up of little Bonnie and I set about making up a bunch of lost cat signs. Then I started trudging around the neighborhood affixing the signs to telephone poles. Then I started calling shelters. It was awful.
Now as a veterinarian I am on the opposite end of the lost pet hunt. People bring those home made signs of their cat or dog, complete with the carefully selected photo and tearfully come in to my office asking if they can display their sign. They call, hopeful that some good Samaritan has brought their wayward pet in. Emotionally, it’s hardly any better witnessing such a search than a principal to it.
The first question we always ask someone who is looking for a pet is, “Is your pet micro-chipped?” This is because pets that are micro-chipped are so much more likely to be reunited with their owners. Sadly there are many owners who haven’t yet taken this simple step to protect their beloved pet.
I try to make it a point to check whether every patient I see is micro-chipped, and if not to make it a strong recommendation to the owner. When an owner says no, for just a moment I remember the heartbroken feeling I had as I made my way around the neighborhood posting my forlorn lost cat signs. Every, single, time.
A microchip is a tiny computer chip which has an identification number programmed into it. The chip is the size of a grain of rice, and it is easily and safely implanted into the skin of an animal with a hypodermic needle. Once the animal is “chipped” he can be identified throughout his life by this unique number.
The chips have a 25-year lifespan, require no care, and cannot pass through or out of the body. Microchips are read by a scanning device which recognizes a unique identification number. The number on the pet’s microchip is registered with a national database. At my hospital we complete the registration for the owner at the time of microchipping since registering the microchip is a crucial step that busy pet owners often forget.
How important is foolproof identification?
- 30-60% of lost pets in shelters are euthanized because they cannot be properly identified and returned to their owner.
- Only 14% of dogs and 4% of cats who end up in shelters are returned to their rightful owners.
- Less than 25% of all animals that enter shelters are adopted by new owners.
- Approximately two million pets that are reported missing each year may be victims of theft.
Some pet owners think that having a microchip implanted is a complicated, like an expensive and painful surgery, but nothing could be further from the truth. Microchips are injected through a needle, so getting your pets micro-chipped is as simple as getting them vaccinated.
By far and a way the biggest reason people tell me they are choosing not to micro-chip is “I just don’t plan on losing my pet.” Of course they never use those exact words It’s always something along the lines of “Well my cat never goes outside”, or “My dog is always with me.” I always want to ask people to call somebody who has placed a lost pet ad and ask the person why they chose to lose their pet. Not losing your pet is a plan that works great up until the day it doesn’t.
In Florida we are at risk of hurricanes. In 2004 Florida veterinarians and shelters were inundated with all of the lost pets that came out of the hurricane ravaged zones in Louisiana and Mississippi. Many of those lost pets were dogs that knew tricks like sit and shake, so you knew they were someone’s beloved pet, not to mention the Persian cats that looked lost and terrified because they were used to sitting inside on a couch all day. Suddenly these animals found themselves in a scary and alien world of shelters and rescues; so many never were reunited with their owners. The most important characteristic of those pets that did get reunited? …The presence of an identifying microchip.
One thing a microchip can’t do is allow you to track your pet around the neighborhood; they are not GPS enabled, at least not yet. But there are now pet doors that identify your pet’s microchip and will allow him or her access but not let other animals like raccoons and opossums into your home.
In the end I found Bonnie. She hadn’t wandered far from home and a couple of days later came looking for the food that I had put outside with a hope and a prayer. I was lucky, so was she.
Other tips for avoiding lost pets:
- First be sure your pet is micro-chipped.
- Use a collar and up-to-date pet tags. I recommend your pet wear a tag with its name and your current phone number and the word “reward.”
- Avoid leaving your pet unattended outside or in a car – pets get bored and look for ways to escape.
- Don’t wait. If your pet is missing, start searching right away.
- Visit shelters in person even if they say they don’t have any animals matching your pet’s description.
- Be sure you have pictures of your pet so you can make flyers.
- Check websites like www.tabbytracker.com and www.sherlockbones.com.
- Be sure your fence is in good repair and consider installing self-closing hinges.
By Dr. Don Woodman, DVM
Northwood Animal Hospital
Article written for Destination Tampa Bay magazine