If Lassie comes home, owner can thank the microchip implant

April 07, 1993|By New York Times News Service

OCALA, FLA. — Pet identification has leaped into the computer age.

Critters of all description can benefit from a new microchip that acts as a high-tech dog tag, its developers and users say.

"This is another good way to help us reunite lost pets with their owners," said Robert Hewler, supervisor of the Marion County, Fla., animal control department.

The chip, about the size of a grain of rice, is electronically encoded with a serial number. It is then implanted into the animal, and information about the animal's owner is entered into a nationwide data base.

If the pet ever winds up in a shelter that has the proper equipment to "read" the chip, it stands a good chance of getting back home, Mr. Hewler said.

By running a scanner over the implanted chip, the serial number can be retrieved and the pet's owner located.

Implanting the chip is no more complicated than a routine injection, said Joseph Hooker, a Marion County veterinarian. The implantation costs between $25 and $35, and the one-time fee to be included on the data base runs between $30 and $40, depending on which brand of chip is used.

Dr. Gary M. Brooks, a veterinarian at the Academy Animal Hospital in Baltimore, began offering the service two months ago.

Dr. Brooks donated scanners to the Baltimore City Bureau of Animal Control and the SPCA in Baltimore. He says he is planning to donate one to the Animal Emergency Center on York Road.

When Dr. Brooks implants a microchip in an animal, at a cost of $25 to the owner, he sends this information to the places in the area with scanners.

Earl Watson, the director of the Bureau of Animal Control in Baltimore, said all forms of identification -- from tags on collars to tattoos -- can assist in returning a pet to its owner.

"All of these things are useful," Mr. Watson said.

The microchip system can be thought of as a three-legged stool, said Keith Myhre of InfoPet Identification Systems, one of three companies marketing the technology in North America.

You need someone to implant the chips, a data base to store the information and a scanner to read the chips, Mr. Myhre said. If one component is missing, the system won't work, he said.

That may explain why the chips have been slow to make inroads into the pet-owning community. Scanners are expensive -- one company charges about $1,200 -- and few government-run animal control centers can afford them.

The Marion County animal control department got its scanner through a donation from chip manufacturer AVID Inc., a California-based company.

The fee to implant and use the device is sort of a Catch-22, Dr. Hooker said. People who care enough about their animals to spend $60 on a high-tech tag generally keep close track of their pets and therefore feel they don't need to tag them, he said.

The chips have been popular among zoos and other animal-welfare and research groups. Everything from fish to elephants has been implanted.

The Central Florida Herpetological Society uses the tags to mark all kinds of reptiles and amphibians.

It has made the job of identifying the group's animals much easier, said founder Wayne Hill.

"It's hard to tattoo an animal that sheds its skin" several times a year, Mr. Hill said.

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