Lost and Found

news2catMicrochips become mandatory for Santa Cruz County pets

It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your dog is?

Beginning next month, that question will be easier to answer for owners with lost pets. As a result of a 4-to-1 Board of Supervisors vote on Tuesday, Feb. 24, Santa Cruz County pet owners will soon be required to insert microchips into their dogs and cats.

County animal control officials cite the microchip program’s exceptional track record of reuniting stray animals with their owners as a primary driver for the law while pointing out that it will ultimately save taxpayers’ money.

“The whole idea is to get owned animals home as quick as possible,” says Melanie Sobel, general manager of the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter. “Collars and tags are great, but unfortunately many dogs and cats come into the shelter without a collar. The microchip is permanent and unalterable.”

According to Sobel, lost dogs and cats with microchips spend, on average, five fewer days in the shelter before being reunited with their owners.

“Space in the shelter is a precious and limited resource,” Sobel says. “The faster we can get these animals home, the less taxpayers have to pay to house them. It also creates room for incoming ownerless animals that are in much more difficult and dire situations.”

Opponents to the plan have cited medical and privacy concerns while voicing fears that the procedure exists primarily to line the pockets of veterinarians.

Sobel explains that the procedure is not detrimental to the animals. In fact, she compares the microchipping law to rabies vaccinations—a mandatory law enacted in 1970 that contributed directly to the eradication of the disease.

“Much like rabies, this is a public safety issue,” Sobel says. “It is designed to serve the best interests of both the animals and our community.”

The chip, which is the size of a large grain of rice, is embedded into the scruff of the dog or cat’s neck with a hypodermic needle and has been described as a “benign procedure” by Dr. Dana Gleason, staff veterinarian at the county animal shelter.

The cost of this procedure can be anywhere from $20-$50 although some microchip companies charge an additional registration fee. However, the shelter is currently offering $10 microchipping for Santa Cruz County dogs through the end of March.

As for privacy concerns, Sobel insists that the county does not harvest the data stored on microchips.

“This is not an Orwellian plot by big government,” she says. “In fact, the information is stored by the private companies that manufacture the chips. Furthermore, contrary to what some people will tell you, the next step is not microchipping children.”

Supervisor Greg Caput cast the lone dissenting vote against the proposal on Feb. 24, citing concerns that it would create unnecessary bureaucracy and penalize well-meaning citizens.

While Caput was not available for comment as of press time, he has gone on record saying that he believes the procedure should remain voluntary.

When the law goes into effect, animal officers will be able to scan pets to check for microchips and identify the animals’ owners. Non-compliant owners will receive what amounts to a “fix-it” ticket.

“Animals are a luxury, not a right,” Sobel says. “You have to be a responsible pet owner. Think of it this way—car owners are expected to register their cars and get a smog test. This is no different.”

The microchip implant is an identifying integrated circuit that uses passive Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, and is also known as a PIT tag (for Passive Integrated Transponder). At the Feb. 24 vote, a member of the public expressed concerns that the radio waves emitted by the chips are harmful.

Gary Silberstein, a retired UC Santa Cruz professor in molecular and cellular biology studies, disagrees, asserting that such health fears have no scientific basis.

“We’re constantly bathed in radio waves every second of our lives,” Silberstein says. “The effect of something like this RFID on our cells is nonexistent. It’s not even detectable.”

In addition to reuniting lost animals with their owners, Sobel says microchips also help the shelter avoid adopting or euthanizing animals by mistake and improve the tracking of dangerous dogs.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Sobel says. “And there’s nothing worse than seeing an owned animal in a cage who can’t tell you where it lives. This is considered a best practice for animal welfare and is currently advocated [for] by all legitimate shelters and organizations—it’s in your pets’ best interests to be vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and now microchipped.”

With the passing of the law, Santa Cruz County joins several California communities requiring pet microchips, including Long Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles County.

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