The newest technology for locating a lost pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet microchip

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are few things as devastating as realizing your beloved pet has gone missing, and for those who never recover their animal companion, there can be prolonged feelings of guilt, uncertainty and heartache
  • Making sure your pet is properly ID’d at all times is the best way to increase your chances of recovering her if she’s lost, and all forms of identification have benefits and drawbacks
  • In addition to ID tags (both standard and digital), other methods for identifying your dog or cat include permanent tattooing, GPS tracking devices and microchipping

If you’ve ever lost track of a furry family member, even briefly, you’re familiar with the panic that grips you the second you realize he’s missing — and your fear only increases the longer it takes to find him. As time passes and your beloved pet remains out there somewhere, it can be very difficult to handle emotionally.

Losing an animal companion to death is tough enough. Losing one to an unknown fate often results in lingering feelings of fear, guilt and remorse — along with a broken heart. In case you’re thinking, “I never let my pet out of my sight, so there’s no way he’ll ever get lost,” it’s important to note that according to a 2012 survey (the most recent) of U.S. pet owners, 15% had lost a dog or cat in the last five years.1

If you’re a pet parent, keeping your dog or cat safe and secure should be your first priority, and that includes ensuring he can be easily identified if he goes missing. Fortunately, there are several methods for identifying pets, including ID tags, GPS tracking devices, permanent tatoos and microchips.

ID tags

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 "Reward for Return" (which I recommend).

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.

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 ensuring your pet is never, ever without her collar or harness.

Digital ID tags ⁠— These are ID tags or collars that are linked to an online subscription service (e.g., PetHub, Q-Tag) and have the added advantage of being scannable with a smartphone. Q-Tag is also able to capture the GPS location of your pet's last scan. You need to have an online profile of your pet linked to the tag or collar.

GPS tracking devices

GPS trackers are designed more for people 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 set up as alerts.

This type of device can be a good investment if you spend time enjoying 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, like my patient Victor, below, who wears two GPS collars. Obviously, in that case, your dog also needs intensive behavior modification to curb his tendency to run off, but a GPS device might offer an added measure of security.

patient victor wearing two collars
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Permanent tattoos

This method of ID’ing your pet 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 should be used.

Tattooing is the method I use to permanently identify my pets. I put my phone number (which hasn’t changed in a very long time) on their inner thighs. Obviously, if your phone number or other personal information changes frequently, this may not be a good option for you.

Another potential downside is that you have to hope the person who finds your pet knows to look for a tattoo, and this is especially challenging if your pet is very furry. In this case, the earflap is a better location for a tattoo, but many people don’t like earflap markings for aesthetic reasons.

You can increase the likelihood your tattooed pet will be returned to you by registering the number with AKC Reunite or the National Dog Registry. Any number can be registered with the National Dog Registry, and all tattooed animals can be enrolled in the AKC Reunite program 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.

Microchips

Microchips are about the size of a grain of rice. They’re injected under the skin in the neck area between the shoulders and provide a permanent means of identifying your pet.

Microchip placement is very similar to a vaccination. A bit of loose skin between the animal’s shoulder blades is gently pulled up, and the needle containing the chip is inserted. The trigger is depressed, injecting the microchip beneath the skin. I don't get many requests for microchipping, but since the injection can be a bit painful, when I'm asked to place one, I always use a local anesthetic.

Each chip is equipped with an electromagnetic transponder with a unique code that must be registered with a recovery program like HomeAgain or Avid. If a pet is lost, most veterinary offices, shelters and humane societies have scanners that can locate the chip inside the animal’s body and read the code on it.

As long as your pet’s microchip has been registered and your information is up-to-date in the recovery program database, the chip has not migrated too far from the injection site and the person scanning for the chip has the correct scanning device and knows how to use it, it should be relatively easy to reunite you with your furry family member.

It’s important to know that the safety of microchips has been a concern for many pet guardians and many of us in the integrative veterinary community. Although rare, tumors have been associated with implanting foreign objects in pets. For a recent update on the pros and cons of microchips, including issues surrounding the universality and accuracy of chip scanning devices, Dr. Jean Dodds has posted an in-depth article I encourage you to read: “Microchipping Pets.”

Bottom line: Each 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.

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