Dog-Identification Tips

One of the responsibilities of being a parent is making sure a child knows his address and telephone number. Parents patiently remind their children if they ever get lost, they need only find a police officer and tell the officer where they live. A good, permanent, and easily recognized ID -- complete with your current address and phone number -- is the best way to make sure the four-legged members of your family always find their way home safely, too.

There are three types of identification for dogs who fit this bill: tags, tattoos, and microchips. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but no one method offers complete protection. Used together, however, they provide the best chance of a happy reunion with a lost dog.

ID tags. Most everybody knows to get a collar and tag for a dog. The classic dog ID tag is a simple and inexpensive way for your dog to carry your name and phone number. However, the collar-and-tags form of identification does have its drawbacks. The collar can come off or be removed deliberately by an unscrupulous person who finds the dog and wants to pass it off as an unidentified stray. Tags must also be updated when addresses or phone numbers change -- something that often gets relegated to the "one of these days" list during the hustle and bustle of a move. (And, unfortunately, a move is a prime time for pets to get out and get lost.) Tags with outdated information may be of just as little help as no tags at all. To top it all off, tags jingling on a collar can be annoyingly noisy, especially in the middle of the night.

Nevertheless, a collar and tag are the first line of defense against loss. Use a buckle-type flat or round collar with a sturdy D-ring for attaching tags. Never use a choke collar for anything except supervised training sessions. It's just too easy for it to snag on fences, shrubs, or other items and strangle an unsupervised dog.

Try to choose a distinctive collar and tag so it becomes part of your dog's unique description. For example, there are plenty of black Labrador retrievers in the world, but yours would stand out if he had a bone-shaped lime-green ID tag on a neon pink collar. The tag should be engraved and include your name and your day and evening phone numbers. These days, some experts advise against including the dog's name, since putting the dog's name where anyone can see it may make it easier to steal her. Leaving the dog's name off the tag can also help if someone finds your dog and tries to claim ownership. Certainly if you know the dog by name and the person claiming to be the owner doesn't, it makes it clear who's telling the truth.

There are options for an ID tag other than the classic metal tag, which may rust unless it's made of stainless steel. Plastic tags are sturdy and don't jingle as loudly as metal, but they can also fade and become brittle with age. Engraved metal ID plates can be attached directly to flat collars, and some nylon collars can have your phone number woven or imprinted on them directly. A small metal or plastic identification barrel attached to a collar is a distinctive variation on the ID tag. These eye-catching devices unscrew to reveal a slip of paper on which you can record not only your name and phone number but important medical information about your dog, too.

If you are moving or traveling with your dog, buy a temporary write-on tag with your new phone number or the phone number of a friend. Temporary tags are widely available through veterinarians, animal shelters, pet supply stores, and grooming shops. Ideally, however, you should provide your dog with an engraved ID tag listing not only your new address and phone number but also a contact name and number for your previous neighborhood. If your dog gets lost along the way, rescuers might not be able to reach you immediately at your new address. Some humane societies have a permanent ID tag registry system. The stainless-steel tag is engraved with the name of the humane society, the society's phone number, and a registration number. As long as you notify the humane society when your address or phone number changes, the tag will always be current, no matter where you go.

Tattoos. A tattoo is also a visible form of identification, but unlike a tag, it is permanent. Employees at research laboratories and animal shelters know to look for tattoos, and federal law does not permit laboratories to use tattooed dogs. A sticker or sign on your car, fence, or your dog's kennel noting your pet is tattooed can help ward off professional dog thieves.

Most dog tattoos are placed on a dog's belly or inner thigh. Tattoos remain the most legible when given after a dog reaches adult height. Avoid tattooing the inside of a dog's ear (as is done with racing Greyhounds); thieves have been known to cut off tattooed ears to prevent identification.

Tattooing can be done at a veterinary office, with the dog under anesthesia, or by a qualified individual at a dog club or other organization. The procedure is not painful, but it is noisy and time-consuming, so if your dog is squirmy or aggressive, he might require anesthesia.

Although a tattoo is a permanent identifying mark, it must be registered to be of any use. Otherwise, the finder has no way of contacting you. The registry can assign you a code to be tattooed on the dog, or you can use a number that will remain the same for your lifetime, such as a social security number (if you don't mind your personal information walking around in public). Phone numbers and birth dates are poor choices because they change frequently or can be shared by a large number of people.

The major disadvantage of a tattoo is not everyone knows how to contact a registry, or it may not be immediately clear which registry your dog is signed up with. However, tags and tattoos can be used in combination, with the dog wearing a tag bearing a registry phone number. As with the humane society permanent tag, it's crucial to let tattoo registries know if your address or phone number changes.

Microchip implants. These sound like something out of a science-fiction movie, but many "chipped" dogs and cats have been reunited with their owners already through this rapidly growing means of reliable, permanent identification. The chip is typically placed under the skin at the scruff of the neck through a procedure much like giving a vaccination. It is virtually painless, and a single implantation lasts a lifetime.

Available only through veterinarians and animal shelters, microchips are tiny, battery-free devices, no bigger than a grain of rice. Each is programmed with a unique, unalterable code number and some sort of information identifying the chip's manufacturer. Microchip registries keep your personal information on file, listed by the chip's code number. Code numbers are also cross-referenced to the animal hospital or humane society that implanted the chip -- an important backup in case you move and forget to forward your new address to the registry. Specially designed scanners read this information from the chip, through the dog's skin. Before implanting a chip, the veterinarian scans it to confirm the code, then scans again after implantation to make sure everything is working properly.

A microchip sends a signal only when it's activated by a scanning device. The scanner decodes the signal and displays the identification code on a liquid-crystal display window. Veterinary and humane organizations recommend microchipping as a safe and effective way of identifying lost pets and ensuring their return. This type of identification has the potential to save the lives of thousands of dogs who would otherwise die in shelters, unrecognized or unclaimed. As with tattoos, national registration is the best way to make sure you and your microchipped dog are reunited -- as long as the registry has your current address and phone number.

Registering Your Dog's Identification

Listing your tattooed or microchipped dog with a national registry gives you access to the registry's database and services, which often include 24-hour notification, a tag with the registry's phone number, and an indication that the dog wearing it is tattooed or chipped. Often, registries also work through a network of animal shelters across the country. However, many shelters and laboratories now routinely scan strays they receive for microchips, and even if you haven't listed your dog with a registry, the lab or shelter can still find the owner of a chipped dog by tracing the code number to the veterinarian who implanted the chip.

Protect your from permanent loss by ensuring he is well identified. Should he ever escape from your watchful eye, you'll be glad you did.

A dog can be a great source of love and companionship in your home. In addition to all your dog gives you, he also needs a little care in return. Take care of your dog and he will take care of you.

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