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Harford pet microchips program 'saves everyone stress'

The Harford County Sheriff's Office animal control division demonstrates one of its new microchip scanners on Kilo, a therapy dog at Child Advocacy Center.
The Harford County Sheriff's Office animal control division demonstrates one of its new microchip scanners on Kilo, a therapy dog at Child Advocacy Center. (Courtesy Harford County Sheriff's Office)

Gary Barnoff recalled a man knocking on the door of his Perryville home five or six years ago.

"He was in a car accident, and when he got out, his dog took off," Barnoff said.

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The dog was microchipped and, after someone found it and took it to Cecil County authorities, was successfully reunited with the owner, Barnoff said.

The incident showed Barnoff, who is president of Jarrettsville Federal Savings & Loan Association, the benefit that microchipping pets has in a variety of situations, including ones people may not realize.

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"You don't think about being in a car accident" and the pet escaping, Barnoff said.

With microchipping becoming more and more common, the Harford County Sheriff's Office is the latest agency to take advantage of the technology.

The Sheriff's Office's Animal Control Division recently bought seven microchip scanners, one for each officer and one spare, to help retrieve missing pets much more quickly by scanning them on the spot.

The scanners were bought at the end of March and early April, Lt. H.J. Dougherty said. Harford County's animal control responsibilities were shifted last year to the Sheriff's Office from the Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits after Harford County Executive Barry Glassman took office.

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The county's first scanner was free from AKC Reunite, a pet recovery service, Dougherty said.

The devices have proved to be a big benefit to the agency so far, animal control officers Shellie Smith and Kevin Cajigas said.

"It saves stress on that pet," Smith said, explaining the officers do not have to take the pet to a shelter until its information can be determined.

She said she recently picked up a dog in Edgewood that would have had "to go to the shelter environment," but was instead quickly reunited with its owner.

"It saves me time to get to another call and it saves the owner stress and the dog stress," she said. "It saves everyone stress."

Also, "when we take a dog to the shelter, there is an impound fee, so we are saving that fee."

Smith noted pet owners could still be cited by law enforcement, depending on the circumstances, even if they avoid fees associated with the shelter.

The Sheriff's Office scanners were chosen because they could read universal chips. The devices cost about $280 each, Dougherty said.

Smith said she personally scanned four dogs in the past month using the microchip devices.

"I wish more people would chip their dogs," she said.

Cats chipped, too

Cats are also urged to be microchipped. Sheriff's Office spokesman Kyle Andersen said a cat was once hit by a car and taken to the shelter, where everyone thought it was a stray until it was discovered to have an owner.

Harford County Councilman Chad Shrodes, whose cat went missing for five months several years ago and was not microchipped, said he would definitely microchip any future pet.

Strider, a Maine Coon cat who was "the most awesome cat in the universe" and "lived in the wild during his five-month adventure" despite being declawed, escaped from Norrisville until he was found by pure luck in Baltimore County and ultimately microchipped, Shrodes said.

"The woman who found him had planned to adopt Strider as her pet. If she had taken Strider to any other vet other than Jarrettsville Veterinary Clinic, who still had his missing poster up after five months, we would never have been reunited. If he had the microchip, any vet she would have gone to, would have contacted us," Shrodes explained via email.

Smith and Dougherty pointed out the importance of keeping the microchip registration updated as well, as many people fail to change their information after moving.

Microchips, which are implanted with a needle by many veterinarian offices and shelters, involve a tiny electronic chip featuring identifying information just under the skin of the animal's neck, although the chip can move around under the skin.

The microchip-based pet recovery system has been around since 1985, when it was developed by Hannis Stoddard III, according to a hospital Stoddard founded by in Norco, Calif.

Another major proponent of microchipping is Jen Swanson. She became executive director of the Humane Society of Harford County last year after overseeing the Baltimore Humane Society, in Baltimore County, where she said microchipping pets and stray animals is a little more common.

"That is actually my pet project in Harford County," Swanson said about spreading the word about microchipping. She just applied for a grant to offset the cost of microchipping the Harford shelter already does, as well as to allow it to chip stray animals.

"Over 60 percent of the animals that come into my shelter are stray dogs and cats, and it's a very small percentage of them that actually have microchips on board," she said. "We chip all animals before they get adopted."

"A lot of people will say, 'Well, I have an indoor cat,' or 'My dog would never get away from me,'" Swanson said about reasons people avoid getting chips, but pointed out three unexpected situations where pets could nevertheless escape: a break-in, a fire or a car accident.

"These are real-life situations I have seen at the shelters," she said. "Even the most responsible pet owner should think their pet could get loose."

For anyone coming to the shelter to reclaim their pet, the Humane Society offers to chip the animal for $10, she said.

Regarding keeping the chip information updated, Swanson suggests putting the veterinarian as the second contact on the chip, as "that phone is less likely to change."

In most cases, however, "the information is current and we are able to do the return [of the pet]," she said.

Saving lives

Besides helping return pets faster, microchips also save the lives of other animals by helping ensure the shelter does not get too crowded, requiring the shelter to euthanize, she said.

"We don't want to do that, of course," she said.

Swanson said she was glad to hear the Sheriff's Office has obtained scanners, saying most jurisdictions do have them.

Barnoff, the Perryville resident, also has a more personal story involving a dog being rescued because of a microchip.

He said his 86-year-old mother's dog, a big German shepherd named Roman, escaped recently from his parents' house in Punxsutawney, Pa.

"She had actually rescued it," he explained. "We did not even realize it had a microchip in it. It's very timid and we think it heard a loud noise and took off."

Roman was gone for several days before a good Samaritan took him to a shelter in another county, where officials called Barnoff's mother within an hour.

"She was thrilled because she was going through all the grieving [for the dog]," he said. Barnoff did say he has a dog who is not microchipped and is "normally just an indoor dog," but the episode with his mother's dog alerted him to the benefit of the technology.

"I was familiar with the microchip idea, but I guess it was the first time I had seen it was such a benefit, because we wouldn't have gotten him back if he had not had that," Barnoff said.

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