By Dr. Leslie Ross D.V.M.; B.Sc.
Attached to the privilege of pet ownership is an individual’s responsibility for maintaining the pet’s health and safety. Safe and secure confinement when the pet is left to its own devices is of particular importance Still, in the rush of the day, most people will agree that there will be times when doors are incompletely closed, windows accidentally left open or gates improperly latched. Most pet owners will also agree that it is a rare pet that won’t take advantage of any opportunity to go exploring if the occasion presents itself! Fortunately, there are a variety of choices of pet identification methods available ranging from very basic pet collar I.D to more technical electronic devices to insulate against permanent loss of the pet should an escape misadventure actually occur.
A very simple and affordable yet effective form of protection for dogs and most cats is a sturdy collar or harness equipped with a legible I.D. tag and worn 24-7. Ideally, the collar needs to provide basic and current information such as the name of the pet; phone number and address of its home. It may mean the difference between a quick return home, and an impounded pet. ( It is an unfortunate fact that in Canada and in the United States a substantial number of lost pets are received daily by humane societies without any owner identification to make easy their safe return. Consequently, and very sadly, over 50% of dogs and even a higher percentage of cats are euthanized every day at these facilities due to limitations of housing space for these pets).
Rabies vaccine collar tags, frequently supplied by veterinarians for free when a cat or dog is vaccinated, can be very useful as additional identification insurance since these tags are engraved with information that allows for efficient tracing of the lost pet to its owners. Very importantly, this information needs to be kept current should circumstances such as new ownership or a new phone number occur.
Unfortunately, collars are not fool proof. Some cats, like Houdini, can wiggle out of almost any style of collar or harness, either because of their temperament or because of circumstance. (In fact, for an outdoor cat, breakaway collars are actually designed to release should the cat become entangled in a bush, peg or tree branch to avoid it potentially hanging itself). Also, a significant number of dogs will chew through rope tethers or leashes, especially if left unsupervised, so for these individuals, and ideally all pets, tattoos and microchips are excellent considerations for back-up identification purposes.
Veterinarians will commonly tattoo pets when they are admitted to their care for surgical procedures such as for neutering or spaying. Tattoos are applied with a special kind of durable ink to the inside surface of a pet’s ear flap or less often, the inside of its thigh while the pet is still anesthetized. Should the pet go missing at some later date, the tattoo can be traced from its unique coded combination of letters and numbers that identifies the location of the veterinary hospital that performed the tattoo and the year that it was applied, ultimately, leading to retrieval of the owner’s information. Tattoo drawbacks are that darker skin may be harder to read, that sometimes shaving of the ear may be necessary to see the tattoo and that the tattoo may fade over time. Also, very importantly, the owner’s contact information must be kept current if they move or if new ownership of the pet is involved.
Microchips are electronic implants that are roughly the size of a grain of rice. They are injected under the skin of animals between their shoulder blades. Since the injections only cause a momentary mild discomfort they can be administered during a regular physical exam with no requirement for anesthesia. When a scanner device is held close to the chip it emits an electric field that activates the chip causing it to transmit an identification number back to the scanner. From this number, through a registered database the owner’s information can be determined. There are two specific limitations of microchips that must be recognized, especially if they are intended to be the only form of pet identification. The first is that because they are invisible externally, identification information can only be obtained if a facility such as a rescue society, S.P.C.A or veterinary facility has a scanner. The second limitation is that in the United States, some scanners will not read all microchips.
A natural desire of any healthy pet is to explore its surroundings and experience adventures outdoors. Unfortunately, numerous hazardous situations can occur when pets are roaming about unsupervised. Therefore, yard confinement is a necessity to ensure their safety. For dogs, a sturdy fence will usually adequately fulfill this need. Along with sturdiness of structure, additional important features are adequate fence height and depth into the ground .to avoid a bored, energetic dog scrambling up and over the fence or digging under it. Other outdoor confinement alternatives that may be convenient in some circumstances are Aerial Cable Trolleys and Pulley systems.
Cats that prefer the great outdoors are much more difficult to keep confined within a yard. Most won’t be confined for long by a fence unless it is of the invisible kind (pun intended!). A common type of invisible fence system includes an energized wire buried at the perimeter of a designated area. This electronic wire emits coded signals that are received by a shock collar worn by the pet. When the boundary area is approached the collar makes a warning sound and then gives the dog or cat a harmless shock if it ignores the warning and continues on. Some invisible fence variations are wireless or use radio signals from a central unit to define the boundary area. At its best, these electronic systems prevent pets from straying from a yard or area, however they have quite a few downsides. Firstly, an invisible fence doesn’t prevent a neighbor’s pet or predator from entering the area where the confined pet is forced to stay. Also, it can create a phobia in a sensitive pet resulting in a fear of the yard and unwillingness to venture outside because of anticipation of a shock. As well, it may not be a deterrent if an animal is bound and determined to pursue a target outside of the defined safe zone.
For many owners of particularly energetic and adventuresome pets, G.P.S. equipped collars are excellent options for tracking of these guys eloping from their home range. Most types can be configured to different boundaries. Two of the three front runner types of GPS units are the Garmin and Tagg.
These two units will send an alert by a text or e-mail to an app on one’s smart phone or uploaded to a browser on a computer. The third kind, PetTronic communicates through radio waves to an owners handset. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages of each kind. Battery life may be shorter with some types than others. Also, some send more frequent test message alerts than others. So,for these kinds, unlimited text plans may make costs less of a concern. A summary of the main attributes and disadvantages of these three types of GPS can be found online at www.consumereports.org May 2012 ( how to track a lost pet ). The cat versions are lightweight and attach to most collars. In general, they serve their purpose well however, there always is the slim possiblility that one day you may find yourself on your hands and knees under a thorny bush expecting to find your cat but instead finding just his collar with the GPS unit well attached but no cat in sight!
Obviously,for all the identification measures that have been discussed, none are 100% foolproof. However, in general, their individual effectiveness is directly related to how current the owners identification is maintained.
To protect your pet from becoming permanently lost it is best to research your options thoroughly and then consider at least one, or ideally more than one of them. Obviously, there is no single cookie cutter approach since every pet-owner has different needs and requirements. Optimally, more than one identification safeguard is safest. After all, your four-legged best friend is worth the investment. Saving his or her life can be your valuable personal reward!