Identification of our pets is almost rudimentary now. Many owners have microchips placed under the skin of dogs and cats in case a four-footed friend goes missing outside. Humane societies and animal control are trained to scan stray animals for these microchips and if found to have one, the animal is easily returned home. But what about livestock? What if a horse jumps the fence or a group of cattle on a 5,000 acre ranch wanders too far from home?


Branding is the traditional way farmers identify livestock, especially on large ranches where the property isn’t necessarily fenced. Over the years, ranches developed brands that were unique to their farm, and all animals, typically cattle and sometimes horses, were permanently marked with a hot iron to the rump or shoulder. This practice still goes on today. In fact, ranchers are encouraged to register their designed brand with their local jurisdiction. The art of designing a brand is actually quite interesting, and I’ve always been intrigued by the various names for designs, such as the “lazy A,” the “walking V,” and the “rocking J.”


Concern for animal welfare over the past few decades has led to the search for more humane ways to permanently identify livestock. Freeze branding is an alternative to the hot iron and some studies show it may be less painful. However, the fact is if something is severe enough to cause a permanent scar, its application is probably going to be painful no matter what.


Many horse owners today do not have their horses branded. For small time owners, this practice is unnecessary for personal identification of the horse. But sometimes horses get loose, or even stolen. Proving ownership of a chestnut horse that looks like all other chestnut horses is sometimes contentious. For this reason, many horse owners are increasingly having their horses microchipped in the same way as dogs and cats.


Inserted into the thick ligament along the mane, called the nuchal ligament, a horse microchip is read by a scanner in the same manner as for small animals. Far less painful than a brand or tattoo, microchipping is even becoming an important means of identification for professional equine organizations, such as the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and the United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA). An upcoming ruling in 2014 within the USEF may require all horses receiving new USHJA registration to have microchip ID.


Microchipping is not cost effective yet for the cattle industry. However, this doesn’t seem to prevent some small farms from utilizing a different kind of technology, one more ubiquitous to the highway: GPS tracking.


Getting its roots in wildlife research, where scientists use GPS to track migration patterns for everything from bears to sharks, manufacturers are now marketing GPS collars for cattle as an aid to track wandering herds and to study pasture use in an effort to help design more efficient grazing areas.


I don’t have any clients yet that utilize GPS to track their animals. Although I can’t really see such technology really taking off in larger herds (I suspect each transmitter soon adds up in price), it’s a neat idea. Who wouldn’t want to know where their cows go at night?


Dr. Anna O'Brien


Image: Pavel Vakhrushev / Shutterstock