In a move backers say will greatly reduce the $300-million-per-year California taxpayers pay for housing and euthanizing stray animals, the state Assembly has passed the nation’s first mandatory microchipping-of-pets bill.
If signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate Bill 702 would take effect Jan. 1, 2012, and require dogs and cats to have an identifying microchip about the size of a grain of rice implanted beneath the skin between their shoulders when they are adopted from a shelter or when lost animals are claimed by their families.
Animal-rights groups applaud the move as a way to save lost pets that otherwise might be destroyed.
“Every year, shelters in California impound more than 1 million dogs and cats – and then euthanize more than half of these animals because they could not be reunited with their owners,” says the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Ted Lieu.
“Nationwide, this costs local taxpayer-funded shelters and humane societies $1 billion. This has to stop,” says Senator Lieu.
He emphasized that the bill, if signed, doesn’t mean that every dog and cat owner has to immediately go out and have this done, but rather only when picking up a lost pet at a shelter or adopting one from there. Microchipping can cost from $5 to $50, but this fee is often donated or waived.
An American Veterinary Medical Association study found that 73 percent of microchipped pets are likely to find their way home from a shelter. In California, only 11 percent are making their way home now, data suggest.
“The reason this needs to be a state function rather than a local one is that people pick up strays and take them home and drop them off at the local shelter, whereas the owners are looking for the pet in their own community,” says Judie Mancuso, president of Social Compassion in Legislation, which targets pet overpopulation.
Once the chip is implanted in the animal, an electronic wand can be passed over the area, giving a readout of the owner’s name, phone number, and address. This is superior to a collared name tag, the bill's advocates say, because both tag and collar can come off and be lost.
An important next step will be to create data banks where people who move can send their new contact information, says Ms. Mancuso. “If we keep the databases updated, there is no reason why the return rate can’t reach 100 percent,” she says.
Some animal activists say all microchips are not created equal – one reader may not be able to read the microchip of another reader. So if all dogs have implants from the same manufacturer, then the system works perfectly. But if an owner moves from California to a state that is using another manufacturer, the dog might have to go through the process again.
Some of these concerns are being addressed. Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States, says many chip companies will register pets with any brand of chip, and the American Microchip Advisory Council is working to develop a network of the registry databases to streamline the return of pets to their families.
Overall, the idea has been well received.
Craig Wheeland, a professor of public administration at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, says the issue has broad relevance. In Delaware County near Philadelphia, he notes, the county Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals announced that its shelter will be a “no-kill” facility and that it would no longer accept stray animals from the county’s 49 municipalities.
“Although the municipalities had one year’s notice, they are still struggling to find an affordable solution," he says. "California may be one of the states to lead in mandating the use of microchip technology to manage humanely animal populations."