Technology has done many things in recent years that would have been impossible a few years ago. Now it can determine the identity of a pet’s owner with the swipe of a scanner.
However, that can happen only if a microchip has been implanted under the animal’s skin.
“It’s about the size of a grain of rice,” said Kristen Ruest, whose practice is at the Village Vet in Lewiston.
The chip is injected with a special wide-bore needle and doesn’t require anesthesia, Ruest said, but puppies and kittens are usually microchipped under general anesthesia at the same time they’re spayed or neutered.
From 2 to 4 p.m. today, she will be at a Heart of Niagara pet adoption event in the Town of Niagara, volunteering her services to insert the chips into pets of low-income families who otherwise couldn’t afford the service.
The overall adoption event at Blackwinds Pet Supply, 2494 Military Road, runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“I think it’s very important that there’s a permanent identification on the animal. Collars can be lost,” Ruest said.
Before insertion, the chip is encoded with the name and address of the animal’s owner, which is entered into the National Animal Recovery Database. With a special scanner, the dog or cat’s owner can be determined if it’s picked up as a stray or separated from its owner during a disaster.
It’s the latter scenario that inspired the Niagara County Health Department to get involved with microchips and other animal efforts.
Elaine Roman, director of public health planning and emergency preparedness for the department, has been working for years on response plans to various types of mass disasters, from bioterrorism to widespread bad weather.
The involvement of pets can play havoc with evacuation plans. A survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals determined that near two-thirds of pet owners said they would risk their lives to save their animals.
“In an evacuation order, if they’re told they can’t bring their pets or there’s no place to place their pets, they’re not going to leave,” Roman said.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to the Fritz Institute, 42 percent of the residents in the storm’s Gulf Coast path did not evacuate, in part because they didn’t want to be separated from their pets, for whom no evacuation arrangements had been made. For some residents, that refusal cost them their lives.
“It’s both a public health and a public safety issue, because without the guarantee or assurance that they can bring or should bring their pets while evacuating, people stay home, which is obviously a concern for public safety,” said Elise Pignatora, the county’s public health resource and Strategic National Stockpile support officer.
When an evacuation zone is determined, people aren’t allowed to re-enter it to try to rescue their pets or for any other reason, Pignatora added. “When they try to, that causes other issues for rescuing personnel,” she said.
A federal law called the PETS Act, for “Pets Evacuation and Transport Standards,” passed in 2006, and a state law passed in response, ordered localities to make plans for sheltering and transporting “companion animals,” which means pets.
Federal Homeland Security money has been made available for counties’ efforts in that direction.
Roman said Niagara County succeeded in winning a $60,000 grant in 2011, which enabled it to purchase two special trailers to be made available throughout Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. One is kept in Lockport and the other in Cattaraugus County.
“I designed them specifically so they’re dual-use,” Roman said. “They have stainless steel fold-up tables and they also have air conditioning and a heat strip so they can be used to house the animals in an emergency once the equipment is removed … We have the food dishes. We have cages in it. We have leashes, tethers for both small and large animals.”
The trailer was used at the SPCA of Niagara last year after a mass cat-hoarding case in Somerset overwhelmed the agency’s capacity, Pignatora said.
Roman said pets are supposed to be licensed and registered, but a lot of them aren’t. In an emergency, “We want to make sure we have a method of identification if they do show up at a shelter,” she said.
That involves the microchips.
“It’s not a GPS chip. The chip does not ping somebody’s GPS,” Roman said. The scanner has to be waved next to the pet.
Besides dealing with a missing pet, the chip also could help authorities find a responsible party in the case of a loose dog who bites someone, Roman noted.
Ruest said the chip is inserted between the animal’s shoulder blades. While it can shift within the body, Pignatora said there are no reports of health problems for pets from migrating microchips.
Pignatora said the animal owner will be given information, including a bar code sticker, to correspond with the code on the chip.
“Let’s say five Labs show up at a shelter,” she said. “How are you going to differentiate between the five Labs, assuming the animal would be calm and aware enough to just behave excitedly when they see their owner?”
Once the scanner is waved over the animal, the bar code number comes up, and the shelter operator can call the national database to find out the name of the owner.
“It’s lifetime enrollment. Every year they get an email for the owner to update their contact information,” Pignatora said. “It’s for life. They’re no additional fees.”
Roman said the county obtained a donated scanner and spent $5,000 to buy 950 chips, some of which will be used by Ruest at today’s event. Animals adopted between 2 and 4 p.m. also will receive chips, Roman said.
Many veterinarians offer this service for a fee. Since early 2012, the SPCA of Niagara has implanted microchips in all dogs and cats brought in for adoption, shelter director Amy Lewis said.
She said the SPCA will charge pet owners $15 for a chip. The organization offers the service to people who claim strays, and plans a microchip clinic at its two-day fund-raising event, “Dog Days of Summer,” set for Aug. 3 and 4.
Pignatora said that in New York, only a vet or a veterinary technician under a veterinarian’s supervision is allowed to insert the chips, except for animals controlled by shelter agencies.
The county keeps a list of pet-friendly hotels and animal handlers who can help with evacuations. Roman said the county is trying to identify evacuation facilities where temporary animal shelters can be set up.
The Health Department held a two-day training exercise June 25 and 26 at the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Education Services building in Sanborn, which drew about 50 volunteers and professionals affiliated with the Niagara County Animal Response Team.
“In order to have a plan, we have to test our plan,” Roman said.
But so far, the county has not been able to test the effectiveness of the chips in an emergency situation, because the county’s overall evacuation plan, being drawn up primarily by Emergency Management Director Jonathan F. Schultz, is not yet complete.
However, another free microchip event may be held later this year, perhaps in conjunction with one of the Health Department’s free rabies vaccination clinics, Roman said.