LAS VEGAS -- Microchip implants are revolutionizing efforts to reunite lost pets with their owners.
Such was the picture a handful of manufacturers painted for the 1,100 humane society and animal control professionals at Animal Expo '92, an industry trade show and conference. Despite their testimonials, these implants more likely belong to the future than to the present.
The importance of permanent identification for companion animals has long been recognized. Some pet owners, especially cat lovers, don't put collars on their pets, and others are careless about keeping a current ID tag on the collar. But even a collar and tag can be worthless once an animal gets out. Some pets will slip their collars. In instances of pet-nappings, the collar may be thrown away seconds after the animal is snatched.
The most permanent pet ID today is a tattoo on the inside rear thigh or belly of dogs, or on the ear of cats. The procedure is quick and relatively painless; in most cases, it is performed in less than 10 minutes on a fully conscious animal.
When the tattoo number is registered with either of two national registries, the animal stands a good chance of being reunited with its owner should it stray; it may be less appealing to a person stealing animals for ransom or for eventual sale to laboratories.
Reputable laboratories will not accept a tattooed animal. As for extortion attempts, the head of one registry points out that the risk is higher with a tattooed pet since the extortionist is holding, in effect, marked stolen property.
Representatives of both national tattoo registries told of animals reunited with their owners long after they were lost.
"We returned a miniature pinscher nine years after it was stolen," said Mitch Rappaport of the National Dog Registry. "Another time, we got a call on a Doberman whose tattoo was discovered as he was being prepped for surgery at a veterinary hospital. He had been stolen out of a car 60 days earlier."
But the microchip implant has the potential of upstaging the tattoo as the preferred form of permanent pet ID.
Small enough to be implanted through a needle, each microchip carries a number that is unique and unalterable. By waving a scanner over an implanted animal, a shelter worker can find that number. The worker can call a data base to match it with information on the owner.
But while the technology holds much promise in the eyes of many shelter professionals, it holds little else.
There are a handful of manufacturers in the market now, with more poised to enter the fray. Each competitor, however, offers a system incompatible with the others.
The manufacturers compared the problem to the "VHS or Beta" question that VCR buyers faced in the '80s and predicted a move toward compatibility.
"It's possible to build in technologies that all scanners can read," said Byron Slateland, director of marketing for the senior firm in the field, the 10-year-old Destron/IDI.
Until that happens, and until a national microchip registry can match pets with owners as quickly and efficiently as is now the case with registered tattoos, don't expect microchipped pets in many communities -- at least not for a few years.
While microchip and tattoo proponents argued computer data bases and compatibility at Animal Expo, one decidedly low-tech form of cat ID was getting a lot of attention -- the ear tag.
Installed with a human ear-piercing machine on the forward-edge base of the ear, the tiny tags are made of non-allergenic surgical steel and can carry a phone number and a few additional bits of information.
The distributor, Animal Care Equipment and Services, said the tag is easily placed, non-irritating to the animal and nearly impossible to dislodge. The suggested retail price is $10.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.