Tag, You’re It! (and the Miracle of Microchips)

Whatever it was moved like a dark shadow across the edge of a dream.

I was walking Lilly, out Boston terrier, in the early morning when it whooshed by. By the time my eyes caught up with and focused on the shadow, it was rounding a bend in the road up ahead.

The “shadow” was a small dog - possibly a black Pomeranian - scurrying along the sidewalk like a sandpiper deftly dodging waves along the shore.

I’d often seen dogs running off-leash in our neighborhood, their owners lagging lazily behind. In this case, my initial vexation turned to concern, then panic, when a woman in a black SUV pulled up and said, “He’s not mine. Did you see where he went?”

I pointed past the curve in the road and the woman swiftly followed. Both dog and SUV turned right at the next corner and disappeared.

Lilly and I dashed home and jumped in the car. I traced the dog and SUVs path to their last-known spot, but did not find them. My heart sank, but my spirits were lifted by what seemed like the woman’s good intentions.

Still, what everyone would do in this situation is not exactly clear. Nor is it clear what the owner had done to prepare for the heart-wrenching discovery that their beloved animal companion was lost.

Each year,  about eight million dogs and cats go missing. Hundreds of thousands are never reunited with their human parents. Some may meet a number of grizzly fates including death from accidents or the elements, euthanasia, or resale to a soul-less person.

While no system can protect against someone snatching a pet out of the yard or ensure that a pet won’t be lost in a remote area, two simple tools vastly increase the chances that pet and parent can be reunited: tags and microchips.

To most rational pet parents, this ranks as the ultimate “duh” in pet loss prevention. However, many people who would call themselves caring do not make the time to follow through on these critical details or assume that such a loss could never happen to them.

Lost-and-found tips and tidbits for pet parents:

  1. Have a microchip implanted. A large-bore needle is used to insert the chip (about the size of a grain of rice) along the animal’s back, usually between the shoulder blades. The procedure is most often performed by a vet and is reportedly no more painful than a simple blood draw. The cost ranges from $10 to $50.
  2. Each chip is imprinted with a unique identification number that can be retrieved if the lost companion is found and brought to a local vet, shelter or rescue group that has a scanner.
  3. However, the identification number is ONLY useful if it is linked to the information registered by the pet owner. Unfortunately, many people omit this most critical step or fail to update the registered information when they move.
  4. It is important to have the chip regularly scanned by your vet to ensure that it has not migrated to a different part of the body. Staff shortages at many facilities mean than found companions may only get one shot at scanning, so it’s possible the chip may be missed.
  5. Several different companies manufacture microchips and not all animal facilities use a universal scanner that is sensitive to all types of chips. Find out what type of chip is most commonly used in your area. If you find a pet, determine whether the shelter you take him/her to has a universal scanner.
  6. Additionally, microchip frequencies vary in different parts of the world. For example, European chips operate at 134.2 kilohertz while U.S. chips operate at 125-128 kilohertz. Many frequent fliers who bring their companions along are opting to have multiple chips implanted.
  7. Always, ALWAYS, keep a collar on your pet and attach metal ID tags.  Engrave phone numbers with working voicemails (check and empty your message box regularly!). This is the simplest and most direct way for Good Samaritans to contact you and bring your loved one back home.
  8. A microchip is NOT a GPS or other tracking system! To be functional, it MUST BE REGISTERED. Your pet will have to be found by a responsible person and brought to an animal-care facility or vet with a scanner (another good reason why ID tags are the best first-line of defense).

I pray for that little black dog and the lady in the SUV. And, I hope that some desperate pet parent out there planned well - and followed through.