What happens when Fido breaks his leash or your favorite feline makes a mad dash for the open door? Of the 6 to 8 million pets entering shelters each year, only about 30 percent of all dogs are returned to their owners. Cats fare even worse: Only 2 to 5 percent of wayward felines ever make it back home, according to estimates by the Humane Society of the United States.
Luckily, new advances make it easier than ever to keep track of lost pets. From GPS locators and portable pet flash drives to reworked microchip systems, there are plenty of options to choose from.
Several companies - KoogaPet and Top Tag Pet ID are just two - have repurposed the USB flash drive, turning this common data storage device into tiny pet tags. No bigger than a traditional engraved tag, the USB tags are capable of storing contact information, vaccination records, medical histories, care instructions and even photos. The information is stored in a series of simple forms, which pet owners can update as often as needed.
If your pet gets lost, anyone with a computer can access the information - just insert the tag into a USB port and follow the directions. Prices start at $30.
Companies like Global Pet Finder and DogTracs have combined GPS and cellular technology to create tracking systems for pets that are prone to wandering. Owners set up virtual boundaries online or by using the device, which attaches to the pet's collar. When a pet crosses the boundary, the system automatically sends an alert to the owner's cell phone or email indicating the pet's location. Users continue to receive updated alerts every two or three minutes until the pet is returned.
Prices start at about $200 for a complete system. Expect to pay an additional one-time activation fee and a monthly monitoring fee.
Microchips have even gotten a makeover in recent years, thanks to HomeAgain and Bayer Animal Health, who collectively donated 50,000 universal microchip scanners to shelters nationwide, correcting the major caveat of early microchip systems. Because each microchip manufacturer employs proprietary technology in their product, shelters at one point needed as many as four different scanners to help lost pets reunite with their families.
Now, just one universal scanner lets shelters read microchips from a range of manufacturers. "Microchips have great potential now that the industry is becoming standardized," Snyder said. "It's irrefutable proof of ownership in the event of theft or the loss of a collar."
Before investing, contact your local animal shelter or rescue group to make sure they have a universal scanner on the premises. If they haven't yet made the conversion, find out which systems they can read and shop accordingly.
The implant process is simple and similar to administering a vaccine. Each chip carries a unique code which correlates to an entry in a national database that includes your name, address and phone number. Once your pet has a microchip, notify the national database of any changes in your address or phone number.
"If you're going to go to all that trouble of putting a microchip in your pet, it's imperative that you register with a national database - and keep it up-to-date," Snyder said. "They can't locate you if they don't have the right information."
Costs vary, but expect to pay $50 to $100, including the price of the microchip, veterinary fees and the initial registration fee.
In the face of new technology, don't underestimate the power of a simple low-tech collar-and-tag combo.
"A collar with a tag is your best defense against accidental loss," Snyder said. "Not everyone has a microchip scanner, but everyone has a phone that they can use to help return your lost pet."
And, yes, even cat owners need to take precautions.
"There's been a lot of flack about cats wearing collars and getting hung up on things and strangling themselves, but there are hundreds of thousands of cats that die annually in shelters because they have no identification," Snyder said. Even something as simple as writing your home phone number in permanent marker on a stretchable breakaway collar can make a world of difference.
"You just need to have something on the collar," Snyder said.