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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

How to Increase the Likelihood of a Lost Pet’s Safe Return

If you are ever separated from your pet, how will you be reunited? No, I’m not referring to the grandiose vision of you and your pet running across an open field and falling into each other’s grasp. Although this idyllic image sounds great, a more likely scenario is a trip to a veterinary hospital or shelter facility to pick up your pet after tags, collar, or microchip has facilitated his identification.

My perspective comes from having helped lost pets reunite with their owners on innumerable occasions in my clinical practice. Good Samaritans bring in misplaced cats or dogs, sometimes having the outward appearance of being healthy and sometimes obviously injured.

In nearly every circumstance, these stray pets lacked tags and a collar. Fortunately, absent external identification doesn’t mean the pet will be permanently lost. An implanted microchip can provide an additional layer of probability that your pet will be safely returned. Additionally, new technology exists that connects pets to owners via text, e-mail, or smart-phone mapping.

Here are my top recommendations for responsible owners to appropriately identify their pets.

Collar with Tags

Foremost, I recommend that pets always wear a cervical (neck) collar. Some pet owners remove an indoor dog or cat’s collar and neglect to recognize their potential to escape. Outside the confines of your home, your pet will lack an immediate means for identification by a good Samaritan.

A collar should be tight enough to prevent slipping over your pet’s head, yet loose enough to permit two of your fingers to easily slip between the neck and the collar. If you have a brachycephalic (short faced) dog or any other type of breed (mixed or purebred) that is prone to hypoplastic (collapsing) trachea, then using a thoracic (chest) harness is a safer practice than a cervical collar for restraint and walking.

Regardless of your choice of cervical or thoracic gear, attaching an identifying tag is essential. At a minimum, the tag should feature your dog’s name, your phone number, and your city of residence. Whether to include your name, address, e-mail, or other contact information is a matter of personal preference. Tags provided by the veterinary hospital that have your pet’s rabies vaccination along with a tag from the manufacturer of your pet’s microchip create an additional layer of visual identification.

As tags can fall off and some pets are simply resistant to a stranger’s advance, I recommend having your pet’s collar or harness embroidered with his name and your phone number.


As tags can detach and collars can be removed, the most permanent identification practice (besides tattoo) comes from having a veterinarian implant a microchip into your pet’s subcutaneous space between the shoulder blades (i.e., the "scruff"). When scanned, the manufacturer and corresponding number of the microchip are revealed. The shelter or veterinary hospital representative performing the scan can then communicate with the microchip manufacturer.

According to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (JAVMA) article,

Characterization of animals with microchips entering animal shelters (July 15, 2009, Vol. 235, No. 2, Pages 160-167):

… the high rate for return of microchipped dogs and cats to their owners supported microchipping as a valuable permanent pet identification modality; however, issues related to registration undermined its overall potential. Bundling of microchip implantation and registration, point-of-implantation data registration, use of annual compliance and update reminders, and providing access to all registries are potential solutions.

Provided your information has been kept up-to-date, you can be contacted and reunited with your lost pet. Yes, there are occasions where an owner cannot be readily located as a result of not having kept their information current with the microchip’s manufacturer. Having been faced with this situation, I feel badly for the pet who is merely an innocent bystander in a circumstance stemming primarily from owner irresponsibility.

Which microchip to use is a topic of varying opinion and depends (in part) on your intent to stay within the U.S. or to travel internationally (International Standards institute the ISO chip). Two of the major manufacturers of microchips include AVID and Home Again, but other microchip providers exist.

Novel Pet Identifying Technology

At BlogPaws 2011, I became familiar with the novel means of tracking your dog’s location via the Tagg tracking system. Reportedly, "Tagg uses advanced GPS tracking technology to allow you to see where your dog is and receive a notification if he or she wanders off. The lightweight tracker attaches to your dog's existing collar and is designed to be worn at all times, even while swimming."

If your Tagg’d pet moves beyond a set distance, you receive notification via text message or e-mail. You can then find your pet on the Tagg Map and receive directions to the pet’s location via a computer or smart-phone. It’s great that Tagg embraces technology to create a new form of pet identification to be used in addition to a collar (or harness), tags, and microchip. (It is not yet available for cats or small dogs.)

I recommend owners use more than one means for identifying their pets, as there always exists the potential for human or mechanical error. Increasing your pet’s likelihood of being safely returned is worth any inconvenience or expense.


Here's Cardiff with his Christmas present from our dog walker, who ingeniously included a collar with Cardiff's name and my phone number.

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image: OneToRemember / via Shutterstock

Comments  11

Leave Comment
  • Rabies Tags
    04/17/2012 11:19am

    If I'm not mistaken, isn't having a current rabies tag on the critter's collar a law in some places? Hence, it's not just good practice, it's what you're supposed to do!

  • 04/18/2012 06:22am

    Great question/comment.
    I have been combing the web for CA's official statute as to Rabies tags and have not (yet) found anything concrete.
    My understanding is that the veterinarian/office that gave the vaccination is required to provide a certificate and tag. From there, the owner then brings the certification to register the dog and get an additional local government registration tag.
    Dr PM

  • 04/18/2012 11:28am

    Perhaps the regulations for having tags on critters is by municipality?

  • One more idea
    04/17/2012 08:38pm

    May I add that after a pet is lost there are services to help locate your pet. I have looked into(not needed thankfully) a service called Findtoto. They take your information and your pets and for a fee will robo call your neighborhood about your lost pet. I hope I never need a service like this but if I do I will use them to help find my pet. The more people that know I've lost one of my beagles the better.

  • 04/18/2012 06:24am

    Thank you for the comment and suggestion regarding www.FindToto.com
    I will learn more about their services and potentially utilize their resources in the future.
    I hope to see you back again on my The Daily Vet page.
    Dr PM
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

  • MIcrochip flaws
    04/17/2012 10:15pm

    My dog's microchip was recently found to be no longer functional and may have been accidentally removed during a surgery. I learned from this that microchips can migrate to other places in the dog's body (somewhere they can't be found and where they can be excreted from the body in some way). So, don't assume that a microchipped dog has a guaranteed way back home. During routine vet visits have your veterinarian scan the microchip to make sure it is still readable!

  • 04/18/2012 06:27am

    Kim Bentley,
    Thank you for your comments.
    I, too, have seen a microchip migrate in a dog's subcutaneous space. We must take into consideration that microchip implantation is affected by user error! If the person implanting the chip deviates from the standard of implanting the chip between the shoulder blades and inadvertently places the chip on the R or L side of the shoulder (or elsewhere on the body), then the chip may not readily be found on a scanner.
    A radiograph (xray) will reveal a chip's presence (and often other insightful findings), so that is a "next step" if a chip has reportedly been implanted but cannot be found.
    I hope to see you back again on my The Daily Vet page.
    Thank you,
    Dr PM
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

  • PetHub
    04/17/2012 11:36pm

    A cool idea for tags comes from PetHub.com. They have QR Code scannable tags so anyone with a smart phone can find out who the animal belongs to.

  • 04/18/2012 06:29am

    Thank you for your comments and the suggestion of PetHub.com
    I was not previously aware of PetHub. I am ALWAYS curious as to new and helpful technology to increase the likelihood a lost pet is safely returned home.
    I hope to see you again on my The Daily Vet page.
    Thank you,
    Dr PM
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

  • Helping Lost Pets
    04/19/2012 07:24pm

    Hello Dr. PM,
    In addition to your suggestions above, I believe you will find my website very useful. It’s free to use and it’s map based so you can see where a pet was found or went missing. We also recently launched our app for Android phones so that a lost pet alert can be triggered from anywhere.
    Rob Goddard
    website: www.helpinglostpets.com
    android info: http://www.helpinglostpets.com/lostandadoptablepets_android_mobile_app.htm

  • 04/20/2012 05:37pm

    Thank you for the comments.
    I appreciate your sharing another useful tool that will help pet owners find a lost pet.
    I look forward to seeing you back again on my petMD The Daily Vet site.
    Dr PM
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

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