A few days ago, my neighbor's worst nightmare came true. His beloved dog, Bailey, escaped out of his apartment and took off into the neighborhood. He's had her for years, and nothing was out of the ordinary the night she slipped out--there was absolutely no reason to believe she was going to take off running instead of going potty as usual.
But that's the thing about nightmare scenarios--you rarely see them coming. The best way to be prepared for this particular nightmare scenario is easy, affordable, and--in Los Angeles County--required by law. To what am I referring, you may ask?
According to LA Animal Services, here's how microchipping works:
"A microchip, the size of a grain of rice, is injected under the animal’s skin between the shoulder blades. Each chip has a unique number that is registered with a national database along with the pet owner’s address and phone number. The microchip can be read by scanners that are currently used by most animal organizations and veterinary clinics...All animals admitted to an L.A. Animal Services Shelter are scanned for a microchip. If a microchip is found, a nine digit number will appear and we will contact the microchip manufacturer. After a quick search of the pet database, the animal’s guardian can be contacted."
The whole process is no more painful than a vaccination and does not require your pet be under anesthesia.
In LA County, it is the law that all dogs over the age of 4 months be microchipped. Some instances qualify for an exemption, but really, don't try to be exempted. This is ABSOLUTELY the best way for your dog to find his or her way back to you if they get lost.
Even if you have a collar and tags on your dog or cat, it is possible for them to slip their collar or have it ripped off (or removed by some nefarious individual). A microchip, however, is for keeps. I kinda want one for myself.
How Can I Get a Microchip for My Pup?
All dogs and cats adopted from LA Animal Services will be microchipped before they are adopted (cost is included in the adoption fee), and if your un-microchipped dog is picked up by Animal Services, they will be microchipped before they are returned to you. Also, most animal rescues microchip their animals before they adopt them out.
Veterinarians also perform the procedure, but I was talking to a friend of mine who has put off microchipping her dog because she was afraid it would cost too much at the vet. I have definitely noticed that things can be quite pricey at the vet, and I don't think microchipping is covered by many pet health insurers (mine doesn't cover it, anyway). So what's a responsible yet budget-minded pet owner to do?
Fortunately, all LA Animal Services shelters provide dog microchipping for only $15! Other non-profits like FixNation in Burbank also provide microchipping for $15, as well as other services at a low cost, like vaccinations ($15-25), de-worming ($15-25), and nail trims ($10). On their website, Animal Source Los Angeles has provided an EXCELLENT, comprehensive, and searchable-by-location list of low-cost vaccine/microchip clinics offered in LA and surrounding areas.
So if you can afford to take a date to In n' Out...you can afford to get your dog microchipped.
What Do I Do After My Dog is Chipped?
After your pet is chipped, you then register him or her in the microchip company's database. If your pet gets lost and is taken to either a vet or a shelter and is scanned for a chip, the scanner picks up the chip number. Then that number is searched for in one of the two main websites vets use to look up microchip numbers.
When you register your pet with the microchip company's database, you will probably have the option of paying an additional fee (or recurring fees) for a higher level of service. When I adopted Chance, he came with a microchip registered through HomeAgain. While I like this company (mainly because so far I have no reason NOT to), they seem to deliberately make it unclear whether I had to pay for the service or not. So I did--$17.99 per year. The truth is, according to their website:
"As an existing HomeAgain client you are entitled to our basic recovery service for life. None of the new services (proactive recovery, emergency service, online health information) will be available to you unless you enroll with the new HomeAgain. There is an annual enrollment fee of $17.99."
What that means is that the rescue already paid for the chip--all I really had to do was create an online profile (free), register him (free), and then report him missing if he got lost (free). The company would then provide their "basic recovery service"--which is having my information on file and contacting me if someone scanned Chance and found his chip. But if you pay the $17.99/year enrollment fee, you get extra services--most importantly, you can call HomeAgain as soon as your pet goes missing and they will PROACTIVELY contact veterinarians, shelters, and rescues in your area with a photo and profile of your pet.
That proactive response is something my neighbor REALLY wished he'd signed up for at about Hour 3 of Bailey being in the wind. I actually canceled this annual payment once I realized I didn't HAVE to pay for it for Chance to continue to be registered in the database, but I'm thinking about re-enrolling. If you have the $18 to spare, may as well. But if you don't, your dog is still registered and when a vet scans his chip and calls the company, you'll still be reunited!
And this brings me to the most important part of microchipping.
IF YOUR CURRENT CONTACT INFORMATION IS ON FILE WITH THE MICROCHIP COMPANY.
Let me repeat that. YOU WILL ONLY BE REUNITED WITH YOUR PET IF YOUR CURRENT CONTACT INFORMATION IS ON FILE WITH THE MICROCHIP COMPANY.
This is the crux of how microchipping works. It doesn't matter at all that your pet is permanently identifiable if you've got your old landline phone number in the database. So when you move, or get a new phone number, or I don't know get dumped by the boyfriend with whom you adopted your dog so you move out and definitely take the dog with you and never speak to your ex again, MAKE SURE YOU UPDATE ALL YOUR CONTACT INFO WITH THE MICROCHIP COMPANY. It's more important than letting the post office know you've moved, in my humble opinion.
Apparently no matter what brand of microchip is in your dog, you can register the number pretty much anywhere, so feel free to register your pet's chip with HomeAgain--not that I (yet) have any experience with them being awesome at reuniting pets and owners, but at least you know that it's a database being actively used in the Los Angeles area.
If you're wondering about how a microchip helped reunite Bailey and her owner--it didn't. Bailey apparently walked up to her own front door, over 12 hours after she left. But I know, for certain, WITHOUT A SHADOW OF A DOUBT...if CHANCE had been the one to run off into the neighborhood?? There's no way that dog would have a cool enough head on his shoulders to remember how to get home. He'd probably find his way to the nearest In 'N Out and figure he'd been accepted into Heaven.
And then, hopefully, some Good Samaritan would find him passed out near the dumpster, Double-Double smeared all over his grinning face, and take him to get his microchip scanned.