Saturday, January 30, 2010

Technology helps lost pets find their way home

It was more than a year ago when Laura Hawk received the call from the Michigan Humane Society -- her beloved cat, Snowball, had been found in the Rochester Hills area.

He was pretty sick, having contracted pneumonia. But his condition -- alive -- was pretty remarkable considering the circumstances.

Hawk lives 1,197 miles away in Dunedin, Fla., near Tampa. Snowball had been missing for seven years.
"I just burst into tears, I was so excited," Hawk, 60, said. "I said, 'Oh my God. You found Snowball.' "

Snowball's saving grace was a microchip the size of a grain of rice implanted under the skin on the back of his neck.

Neither time nor distance could fool the chip, which operates on radio waves. When it's scanned, numbers and letters pop up on the scanner. From the sequence, a shelter official or vet can trace down the server storing the information and, subsequently, the owner.

From microchips to GPS-equipped iPhone applications, animal lovers are increasingly turning to technology to find wayward or stolen pets.

When a Maltese-mix puppy was stolen from a Novi pet store a few months ago, for example, store owners used a Web-based service to issue what amounts to an Amber Alert for dogs: a registry called Started five years ago and operating out of Wixom, the company has helped 25,000 people nationwide find their lost animals in the past two years, said Nick Acosta, a company co-founder.

Acosta was inspired to start the firm after losing his own pet, Tooga, a Newfoundland, when he was a kid.

"The same advice that was given when we were kids continued -- check the shelter and hang out posters," Acosta said.

"With the technology changes taking place around us, that seemed absolutely ludicrous."

The rise of social media and the advent of smart phones further expanded the repertoire of ways to find lost pets.
Social sites help the search

A new iPhone app, "Community Leash," allows users to send an alert to other users when pets go missing.

On the flip side, if you find a lost animal, you can check local postings and even take a photo with your iPhone's built-in camera and create a "sighting." Community Leash uses iPhone's GPS capability to keep people updated on lost pets in the area.

And for around $400, pet owners can get a GPS collar that allows them to track the movements of their pets via linked satellites.

No single agency tracks the thousands of lost or roaming animals who find their way to shelters and rescue organizations, so it's impossible to pinpoint just how many animals are reunited through technology.

The Michigan Humane Society shelters and cares for about 15,000 stray animals a year. Only about 16 percent of lost dogs and 3 percent of cats are reunited with their owners, said Jennifer Robertson, society spokeswoman.

That's because most of the animals lack any identification.
Microchipping begins

But that's changing. Since summer, the Humane Society has been microchipping all adoptable cats and kittens at its veterinary care centers in Detroit, Rochester Hills and Westland.

Microchipping costs around $48, but the Humane Society is doing it for the cats at no cost to those who adopt them.

"Microchipping offers a safe, permanent and unalterable form of identification," Robertson said. "And that can often be a lost pet's ticket home if he or she arrives at an animal care center. The cost is minimal compared to the heartbreak of losing a cherished four-legged family member."


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