By Dr. Becker
If your pet has ever gone missing, even briefly, you're familiar with the fear that grips you the second you realize what has happened. And if, heaven forbid, time passes and your beloved pet is still out there somewhere, well... let's just say there are few things more devastating to a devoted guardian.
Losing an animal to death is difficult enough. Losing a cherished companion to an unknown fate can result in lingering feelings of fear, guilt, and remorse... along with a broken heart.
I know keeping your pet safe and secure is your first priority, and that includes insuring your companion can be easily identified if he or she does goes missing. These days there are several methods for identifying dogs and cats, including an array of pet ID tags, GPS tracking devices, radio frequency identification devices, microchips, and tattoos.
Standard ID Tags
A standard pet ID tag is made of plastic or metal and dangles off your pet's collar or harness. Tags are engraved with owner contact info – usually just a phone number due to space constraints – and either the pet's name or a short phrase like "Needs Meds" or "HUGE Reward for Return" (which I prefer).
The benefits of this type of tag are the cost and the fact that a Good Samaritan who finds your pet can call you immediately as long as your current phone number, including area code, is engraved on the tag. It's also a good idea to have a backup phone number engraved below yours in case you can't be immediately reached for some reason. The tags are also very customizable and come in every conceivable shape, size and color.
A drawback to standard ID tags is that the engraving can wear off over time, making the tag impossible to read. There's also the need to be diligent in keeping the tag updated with your current contact information, and insuring your pet is never, ever without her collar or harness.
Digital ID Tags
This service is offered by PetHub (there may be other providers out there, but we didn't find any), and requires a few steps to get started. First, you create an account on the site and add a profile for your pet. Then you buy a digital ID tag or collar on the site or from one of PetHub's partners. When you get the tag or collar, you log back into the site and link it to your pet's profile.
If your pet goes missing and someone finds him, Mr. or Ms. Good Samaritan can do one of four things to start the process of returning your pet to you: 1) scan the QR code on the tag with a smartphone, 2) tap the tag (requires a newer smartphone), 3) type in the tag's web address, or 4) call PetHub's 24/7 Found Pet Hotline.
PetHub offers a basic subscription, which is free and includes your account on the PetHub site, the ability to attach an unlimited number of pet profiles to your account, the ability to link a "Powered by PetHub" tag to your pet's profile, and access to a 24/7 Found Pet Hotline.
You can also upgrade to a premium (paid) subscription which provides notification when your pet is found, a GPS map showing where your pet's tag was scanned, and a database that allows you to broadcast your pet's profile to shelters and local businesses near where your pet was last seen.
USB ID Tags
These are actually USB thumb/flash drives that attach to your pet's collar or harness like a standard ID tag. These gadgets can potentially provide added value because they store complete care information for a pet on the thumb drive, which is then available to friends, veterinarians, boarding kennels, pet sitters, rescuers, or the person who finds the pet if he goes missing.
The first thing you'll need to do with one of these devices is plug it into your computer's standard USB port and enter information about your pet on the software the drive provides, which can then be accessed by the person who finds your pet, or anyone with access to a computer.
If this device appeals to you, I recommend doing some research and reading reviews of the various brands available. Some have more options than others for the kind of information you can provide (for example, pictures), and you also want to make sure the device doesn't separate easily if it comes in two pieces. Another consideration is that the person who finds your pet will need to get to a computer (and know how to use it) before they can find you.
GPS Tracking Devices
I first wrote about these devices a few years ago in GPS Pet Tracking System: Pros and Cons. That article will give you an overview of some of the types of units available, costs, and other information. You can also Google GPS pet tracker and see what else is available on the market today.
GPS trackers are designed more for owners who want to monitor the comings and goings of an off-leash pet than for people hoping to recover a lost dog or cat. These devices don't identify your pet if someone finds him – their purpose is to help you pinpoint his location if he ventures past the "virtual fences" you construct as alerts.
As I explain in the linked article, this type of device can be a good investment if you spend time engaging in outdoor activities with your dog off-leash. If you happen to live on a large piece of property and your pet has the run of the place, it might also come in handy.
Another situation in which it might be useful is if your pet is a habitual runner or escape artist. Obviously, in that case, your pet needs some intensive behavior modification to curb her tendency to run off, but a GPS device might offer an added measure of security. I actually have a client, Tina, who has two rescued Pointers that bolt out any open door at every opportunity. GPS tracking devices have been invaluable to her and have helped her retrieve her dogs many times, along with the wonderful folks at Lost Dogs of Wisconsin.
Tina found the dogs running wildly through a forest preserve several years ago. They were exhausted and very thin. We figured they may have been hunting dogs that were kenneled their entire lives, and then for some reason were let loose in the forest.
These poor dogs were like wild animals. They didn't know any words or commands, and seemed never to have been inside a home or even a garage. They couldn't bear to be approached much less touched, and they couldn't tolerate anything around their necks.
Tina, who is a saint, has worked tirelessly with the dogs, and these days they allow her to touch, pet, and even cuddle them. They also now know their names (Victor and Bobby). Victor is fully housetrained, and Bobby is about 50 percent there. They still have tremendous anxiety issues, but they are very sweet with people they know.
Victor (looking out window) and Bobby
When Victor and Bobby get outside, they just want to run, and run, and keep running. Poor Tina has tried everything to prevent them from escaping, but they still manage to do it with some regularity. As you can imagine, it's almost an impossible challenge to give these energetic sporting dogs the amount of exercise they need while also keeping them safe. As Tina describes her situation with Victor, "I'm so paranoid about losing him that I make him wear two collars. One the leash attaches to, and another with the Tagg tracker that also has his ID tags. That way, if his collar fails, at least he'll be running with the GPS and tags with my number."
Victor with his two collars
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Devices
RFID pet tags and collars are essentially microchips your pet wears rather than has implanted. More akin to GPS trackers than a way to help recover a lost pet, RFID devices help you find or keep your pet within a certain roaming range. Audio and visual clues point you in the direction of your pet's location.
Some devices have a range of up to 600 feet and can guide you to within an inch of your pet, even indoors or in the dark, and the tags are small enough to fit tiny dogs and cats. Coupled with optional software and hardware, some models can be programmed to open pet doors, start lawn sprinklers to keep pets out of certain areas, and send audible or text alerts if a pet enters or leaves the range of the reader.
Pet microchips contain an electromagnetic transponder with a unique code that must be registered with a recovery program like HomeAgain or Avid. A scanner is needed to locate and read the code on the chip, and most veterinary offices and shelters have them. The microchip, which is the size of a grain of rice, is injected under your pet's skin in the neck area between the shoulders.
The popularity of microchips has increased tremendously in recent years. Many shelters implant chips in every adopted pet before the animal leaves the facility. One of the main benefits of microchipping is that your pet can't lose his ID. Also, chips have become a standard method of identifying strays. Any lost animal brought to a veterinary clinic or animal shelter is automatically scanned for at least the two most common brands (HomeAgain and Avid).
Drawbacks to microchips are that they must be injected, which can be a bit painful like any injection. I don't get many requests for microchipping, but when I'm asked to place one, I always use a local anesthetic when I implant a chip. The chips have also been known to migrate away from the injection site, making them more difficult to locate with a scanner. Also, the chip MUST be registered to be of any use, and your contact information MUST be kept up to date in the recovery program database for the same reason. Another issue is that there are several microchip companies, but no single scanner that reads every brand of microchip.
You also have to count on shelter workers or vet staff to scan each pet correctly and thoroughly. And lastly, the safety of microchips has been a concern for many pet guardians. Although very rare, tumors have been associated with implanting foreign objects in pets.
For more information, read How Safe Are Microchips?
This procedure involves tattooing a unique code or information on the inner pinna (ear flap), the tummy or inner leg of a mature (fully grown) pet. Ideally, ID tattoos are done while an animal is under anesthesia for another procedure. Otherwise, a sedative and local anesthesia is used.
Tattoos are permanent, visible, and difficult to remove. Employees at research laboratories and animal shelters know to look for tattoos, and federal law does not permit product or other testing on tattooed animals.
I chose to permanently identify my pets with this method, putting my phone number (which hasn't changed in a decade) on their inner thighs. The downfall to this option? Obviously my number can never change, and you have to rely on a Good Samaritan to call – and to know to look for a tattoo. If your pet is very furry, this option won't work because the person that finds her won't ever see the information unless she is shaved. In this case the ear flap is a better option, but many people don't like this placement for aesthetic reasons. Also, thieves have been known to remove the part of the ear that shows the tattoo. You can increase the likelihood of your tattooed pet being returned by registering the number with the AKC, the National Dog Registry, or Tattoo-a-Pet. Any number can be registered with the National Dog Registry, and all tattooed animals can be enrolled in the AKC's Companion Animal Recovery system regardless of species, age, size or number used.
A drawback to a tattoo is that it may fade or blur over time and become difficult to read. Another layer of black ink can be applied to restore the tattoo.
As you can see, every method for ID'ing your pet has pros and cons, so the ultimate decision is yours and should be based on your pet's personality and lifestyle, as well as your comfort level with the identification method you choose for your furry family member.
I recommend that every pet have a standard up-to-date ID collar or tag in addition to whatever other ID method their owner chooses, since the easiest, fastest way for someone who has found your pet to find you, is to take a quick look at the contact info contained on his tag or collar.