A well-fitted collar with a current ID tag is arguably a pet's best chance at coming home again if lost, but it's not a perfect system. Some cats are experts at ditching collars, tags fall off or aren't kept updated, and pet thieves toss the collar the second they grab an animal.
For all these reasons and more, animal shelters have long been recommending high-tech microchips as a complement to the low-tech collar and tag.
About the size of a grain of rice, a microchip is implanted at a veterinary office or shelter, typically beneath the skin over an animal's shoulder blades. Once in place, the number on the chip can be read with a hand-held scanner, and that number is matched with contact information for a pet's owner.
Since microchips gained widespread acceptance in the '90s, millions of animals have been chipped. Even more important, hundreds of thousands of pets have been reunited with their families.
"Both recovery systems get a thousand calls a day," said Dr. Dan Knox, the veterinarian in charge of the companion-animal program of microchip manufacturer AVID. "Microchips work."
Unless they don't.
The recent introduction into the United States of a microchip that operates on a different frequency from the ones already in use has put a glitch into the nation's microchip system, with the potential for placing thousands of pets at risk if not resolved.
The microchip muddle began last year when Banfield-The Pet Hospital (the veterinary presence inside the retail giant Petsmart) started selling a chip that operates on a frequency recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and is widely used outside of the United States.
There's debate over whether the U.S. should adopt international microchip standards -- it has been characterized as an issue similar to the country's lack of interest in adopting a metric system of measurement. But one issue isn't up for argument: Shelters using the current "universal" scanner can't read an ISO chip.
Citing concerns over the incompatibility issue, Banfield stopped its microchip program, but not before 26,000 animals were chipped. Banfield has since started advocating for a scanner that reads all chips, while the players already in the game, such as AVID, advocate an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach -- no ISO chip, no problem.
AVID is one of two major players in the U.S. market, with information on 18 million animals in its database. The other major microchip system, Companion Animal Recovery (CAR), is administered through the American Kennel Club using a microchip made by Schering-Plough. CAR has information on more than 2.7 million animals in its system.
In the nation's shelters, the people on the front lines just want a system they can work with to reunite animals with their families.
"The shelter community does not deserve to take the blame for putting an animal to death after missing a chip while corporate people play games," says John Snyder of the Humane Society of the United States and a member of the Coalition for Reuniting Pets and Families. "We say, 'OK, keep your AVID chip, keep your Schering-Plough chip -- heck, bring in an ISO chip. We don't care. We're looking for a universal scanner that can read them all.'"
For Snyder, the issue feels like a bad rerun. Feuding manufacturers and incompatible chips almost stopped the promising technology from getting off the ground in the first place. The problems were resolved when manufacturers decided to cooperate on a scanner than could read all chips then in use.
Whether the situation will be resolved similarly this time is still very much in the air.
What to do now
Pets now carrying ISO microchips are probably best implanted with a second chip that can be read by scanners currently in use in the nation's shelters. (Although ISO scanners have been widely donated, shelter staffers are unlikely to take additional time to scan a second time for a less-common microchip.)
For information about microchips now in use, contact CAR (www.akccar.org; 800-252-7894) or AVID (www.avidid.com/pets; 800-336-2843).
For information about the push to develop scanners than can read all microchips, ISO variety included, check out the Web site of the Coalition for Reuniting Pets and Families (www.readallchips.com).
Experts say it's essential for information on any microchipped pet to be kept current. Make it a priority for any change in contact information to be immediately updated with the microchip registry.
More tips for greener lawns
Q: Would you please pass on more tips about having a green lawn and a dog? I recommend having a "before 3 p.m. place" in the yard and an "after 3 p.m. place." That way, no area gets hit twice in the same day with urine.
I agree about flushing the area with water, but I think that if someone depends on getting the hose and dragging it to the spot, it won't get done. It's more effective to set out several soup cans of water for this purpose, refilling them every couple of days. (Plus, the dog might feel threatened if the person went to the spigot before he was finished urinating.)
It's also important to offer water often, especially to a senior dog. I am not a veterinarian, but I do work in a convalescent hospital where we offer water regularly, because thirst is not a reliable indicator of the need for hydration.
Washing the dog's bowl daily (not merely refilling it) encourages drinking, as does putting some ice in the bowl to keep water cool when it's hot. Most of all, remind people to offer the bowl and then praise the dog for drinking. I think all these efforts have contributed to my dog's non-concentrated urine.
These steps take only a few moments on a regular basis, but I have never had a burnt patch of lawn. When I walk my dog and she has to squat on a neighbor's lawn, there's never a yellow spot from it. -- R.L., via e-mail
A: Your suggestions are practical along with being beneficial to the dog. That can't be said of some ideas I got from readers, many of whom had heard of things to add to a dog's food or water that just aren't a good idea -- such as salt.
I also heard from people who swore that spaying a dog helps with the urine-burn problem, but I can't say that I've ever known it to make a difference. Ditto with the idea of putting half-filled jugs of water out on the lawn to keep neighboring dogs away. This was big for a while in my old neighborhood, but it did absolutely nothing in my experiments with it. One of my dogs even took to lifting his leg on the jugs that were supposed to have driven him away.
The advice remains: If you can't limit your dog to using an out-of-sight place (either by training or by fencing), then be sure to dilute the urine promptly with water to minimize the lawn-damaging effect.
Q: I am thinking about adding a bird to my family and was thinking specifically about a budgie. What kind of investment will that entail? Are they messy? What kind of cage will I need? -- K.P., via e-mail
A: Budgies come in many colors and patterns, and two basic body types. The American style of budgie is slender and long compared to the husky, almost bulldog look of the English budgie. The personalities are the same, though.
Budgies are quite common and inexpensive compared to other parrots. Prices will vary and may start as low as $10, with rare colors on the higher side. It's worth paying more for a hand-raised bird, because taming an aviary-bred pet who has never been handled can be difficult.
All birds are messy, but a little budgie needs less cleaning up afterward than will a larger parrot.
Because they're so common, budgies are often dismissed as "just" a children's pet. But a friendly budgie can be a loving and entertaining pet for anyone regardless of age or bird-care experience.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Florida to issue newest pet plates
At the end of May, Florida becomes the most recent state to issue vehicle license plates that promote and support the control of pet overpopulation through spay-neuter efforts. The "Animal Friend" plates feature a colorful illustration of a cat and a dog playing on a beach. (More information is at www.floridaanimalfriend.com.)
More pet plates:
P.D., Brookings, S.D.: I have my own business called Paula -- The Pet Sitter, so I got special license plates. I love being with animals, so it's the purrfect job for me!
My job can be harder than you might think, though. I've had to take animals to the veterinarian in emergency situations because they've gotten sick while their owners were away, and I've had to call repairmen when clients' furnaces have malfunctioned.
I have eight indoor cats (Himalayan and Persian) and two dogs (terrier mix and a Sheltie). I provide a foster home for baby kittens for our local humane society. My husband and I have no children, so we completely spoil our critters. We take separate vacations, if we take time off at all, so our pets are not alone.
(Got a pet-related license plate? Send a jpeg image and the story behind it to email@example.com.)
Fleas may not be so easy to see
Just because you can't see fleas doesn't mean your dog doesn't have them. It takes only a few fleas to cause misery, and often, by the time people start noticing fleas, the animal already has a severe infestation.
Here's an easy way to figure out if fleas are the problem: Put your pet on a white or very light-colored sheet and run your fingers through her fur, going against the grain. Then look at the sheet. If you see what looks like flecks of pepper on the sheet, then your pet has fleas. Those little dots are flea excrement, which is made up of dried blood. (If you're really curious, add a drop of water to one of the flecks and it will turn red.)
If fleas are present, talk to your veterinarian about flea-control products. These products have a wide margin of safety for healthy pets and are effective against fleas. You can also keep flea levels down in your home by washing pet bedding regularly and vacuuming areas where pets hang out.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Buyer beware: Sick bird will cost you
Most parrots are pretty expensive, with prices for healthy, well-socialized birds starting in the hundreds of dollars and heading up dramatically from there. With that kind of money at stake, it pays to be careful!
One of the best ways to find a good pet parrot prospect is to ask an avian veterinarian for a referral to a reputable breeder or bird shop. You should also be familiar with signs of good health in any bird you're considering. A healthy bird will:
-- Behave normally, perching without problems and moving with coordination, using the full body without favoring one side or the other. The bird should bear weight evenly, with all four toes present on each foot and in proper position -- two toes forward, two backward.
-- Be alert and responsive.
-- Breathe easily, with no sign of laboring and no tail-bobbing, which is another indicator of breathing problems.
-- Have eyes, ears and nostrils that are clean and free of debris and discharge.
-- Have healthy plumage. Feathers should have normal color and structure, showing no signs of excessive wear or horizontal lines indicating problems with feather development. There should be no sign of feather-picking, nor any broken feathers caused by improper housing or other damage.
-- Consistently produce droppings that are normal in appearance and have all three components: urine (liquid), feces (solids) and urates (white semi-solids). There should be no pasting of waste on the bird's fanny.
-- Have a well-muscled body that's not obese, with smooth, undamaged skin under the feathers.
A bird who's exhibiting even one or two of these general signs of illness needs prompt veterinary attention. Because birds showing any sign of illness are often very sick indeed, you may be taking on more than you bargain for if you buy such a bird. And you may end up paying for a bird who cannot be saved.
On the Web
Lots to learn on Persian site
With their long, silky coats and large, beautiful eyes, Persians remain among the most popular of all cat breeds. For those who love Persians, as well as anyone who's thinking of getting one, www.Persian-Cats.com is a must-stop spot on the Internet.
For someone just starting to research, there's information on the history of the breed, current variations in coat colors and patterns, health issues and how to find a reputable breeder. A search on nutrition turned up a piece by a woman who feeds her cat "pinkies" -- infant mice usually sold as snake food. "It's a complete meal," she notes.
Visitors to the Web site are required to register before they can have access to chat and bulletin-board areas. Registration is free and fast, and the chats can be lively. Finally, the site offers lots of wonderful pictures of these stunningly beautiful cats.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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