Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

It's safe, quick and easy, but not
a mainstream security measure - yet

By Carla Thornton

THE LOCAL bird club is holding another microchipping fair. Brochures at your vet's office advertise microchipping. And just the other day the zoo announced implants for its exotic bird collection. Is it time you got your parrot 'chipped?

It might be. If your bird can handle a needle stick, there's no reason not to embrace this new high-tech method of identification. By all accounts, microchipping is as safe for birds as it is for dogs, cats and other animals.

Chipping is a more reliable way to identify your bird than leg bands, those useless anklets most bird owners have removed because they snag on objects. If your bird winds up at an animal shelter or is stolen and later recovered by authorities, a microchip could bring him back home to you.

On the other hand, microchipping isn't a widespread practice yet, so someone who finds your bird might not think to have it scanned.

Even some shelters consider scanning birds a waste of time, although others have embraced it. The Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo, Calif., receives up to 150 stray birds a year and scans them all, says exotic animal program coordinator Natasha Rathbun. How many have arrived chipped? "None," says Rathbun. "But we'll keep looking."

Just keep in mind that microchipping is not foolproof. It's still better to keep your bird from escaping in the first place using preventative measures such as wing clipping.

Chipped and scanned
Hereís how it works: Your vet injects your pet with a tiny computer chip that's programmed with a unique 10-digit alphanumeric code and sealed inside a glass bead the size of a grain of rice.

At the shelter, personnel use battery-powered handheld scanners to check for chips. When an operator moves a scanner over an animal, it sends out low-frequency radio waves. If the animal has an implant, the chip's antenna picks up the signal and the code is displayed in the scanner's LCD.

The shelter calls the recovery service where youíve registered and gives them the number. The service matches the number to your contact information, and voila, you've got your pet back.

What's great about microchipping
  • It's permanent. Thieves can't remove it.
  • It's safe and does not appear to bother feather pluckers, notorious for picking at wounds.
  • It's inexpensive.
What's not so great
  • It's permanent. Chips can't be removed later.
  • It's not recommended for cockatiels, budgies or any other parrot under 100 grams, which leaves out most pet-bird owners.
  • It's not a widespread practice, so whoever finds your bird might not know to get it scanned for identification.
  • You have to remember to keep your contact information updated.

Currently, two companies in the United States run animal recovery microchipping programs, American Veterinary Identification Devices (AVID) and Schering-Plough Animal Health, which offers the HomeAgain program in conjunction with the American Kennel Club Companion Animal Recovery service.

AVID, one of the first companies to market an injectable identification system for animals, was founded in 1985 by California veterinarian Hannis L. Stoddard III. AVID manufactures its own microchips and maintains its own database of owner information.

HomeAgain, around since 1995, uses chips made by pharmaceutical company Destron and relies on AKC-CAR to maintain its database. Until recently there was a third company, InfoPet, but a patent dispute with Destron has put its pet-ID program on hold.

Most of the pets microchipped so far have been cats and dogs. Both AVID and Schering-Plough have been aggressive in donating handheld scanners to shelters and animal clinics, and many shelters now offer microchipping as an adoption service.

In fact, Schering-Plough says it hasn't tested Destron chips in any animals but dogs and cats, its preferred market. But that hasn't stopped veterinarians from using chips from both companies in everything from ferrets to cattle, elephants and snakes to birds.

No anesthesia required
Although the AVID program has been around longer, many vets use the HomeAgain chip because Schering-Plough has pushed hard for its use in dogs and cats and offered more flexible purchase plans.

From the consumer's point of view, either chip should be fine. They're the same size and work the same way.

The chips fit inside an oversized hypodermic needle described by one vet, Dr. Chris Sanders of the Wildwood Veterinary Hospital in Portola Valley, Calif., as having the circumference of "an African grey's toe. It would be like a human getting stuck with a needle as big around as a finger."

Nevertheless, injections take only a few seconds and donít require anesthesia or a long recovery period. Your vet will hold a finger over the puncture wound or use tissue glue to staunch any bleeding.

In dogs and cats, chips are injected into the loose skin between the shoulder blades. Most vets inject birds in the breast muscle. Your vet should scan the microchip before implanting and once again afterward to make sure it reads properly.

Now the bad news: some pet birds weighing 100 grams or less may not be candidates for chipping because of their small size. So if you were hoping to safeguard your cockatiel, budgie, or lovebird with a microchip, you may be out of luck unless your vet is skilled and she thinks itís worth a try.

After her Fischer lovebird, Pierre, hurt his leg when his leg band got caught on a chair, Carol Rees decided to remove the band and get him microchipped. However, the chip fell out a few days after a vet injected it in the bird's neck.

"He got sick about a week later," relates Rees. "I rushed him to the vet and blood work showed he had an infection. I don't know if it was his hurt foot, the stress, or the microchip."

Cheap to 'chip
Almost anyone can afford to microchip a pet. Expect to pay between $25 and $40 for an office visit. You can get it done at some microchipping clinics and special bird-club events for little or no money at all.

HomeAgain offers a head start by letting you purchase your chip online. The site will notify your HomeAgain vet and you can print out a receipt to take to the appointment.

Chips are automatically registered to the place that implants them. For an extra fee, you can sign up with AVIDís recovery network, PetTrac, or HomeAgainís AKC Companion Animal Recovery program.

The advantage of registering is quicker, more reliable notification. When you sign up with either service, youíll be asked to supply a description of your bird and his chip number, and your name, address, phone number, and vet information.

Both services offer a toll-free 24-hour hotline. If someone calls with information about your lost pet, the service can in turn use your registration information to call you directly, rather than attempt to track you down through a chip sold to a vet who performed the implant.

The two recovery services cost about the same. HomeAgain's AKC Companion Animal Recovery program is slightly cheaper if you're registering one pet. It charges a one-time fee of $12.50, with free updates if you remain the owner. Five or more pets qualifies for a discount rate of $9 per pet.

PetTrac charges $15 to set up an account and $6 each time you need to change your address or update any other contact information. However, it's cheaper if you plan on registering lots of animals - eight or more pets qualifies for a discount rate of $5 per animal.

Some vets factor registration fees into their microchipping services and file the paperwork for you. Otherwise, you can enter your information at the HomeAgain site, which will forward it to AKC CAR, or call AVID at (800) 336-2843 for an application.

Working out the bugs
Early microchipping efforts ran into the problem of migration, where the chip broke free from its implant site and traveled down a leg or to another part of the animal's body.

This problem seems to have been solved. Todayís chips are specially treated to encourage scar tissue to form and anchor them to the implant site, say both AVID and HomeAgain.

Another glitch has been chip and scanner incompatibilities. Although both AVID and HomeAgain have sold universal scanners since 1996, the thousands of proprietary scanners they've handed out for free to promote their programs are still being used by many vets.

As a result, some clinics still have to borrow competing scanners to identify a chipped animal, a hassle that could result in fewer pet-owner reunions.

Then there's the question of chip longevity. Chips are touted to last 25 years, a claim intended to reassure cat and dog owners that implants will last a lifetime. But what about parrots, which can live to be 80?

Bird owners thinking about microchipping should not be concerned, says Peter Troesch, vice president of AVID. The 25-year warranty is based on standard electronics testing and doesn't mean the chip won't last indefinitely, he says.

"There are no moving parts and the chip is in an ideal environment for electronics - the temperature-controlled body of an animal."

Success stories hard to come by
Compared with the estimated number of pets in the United States - some 80 million cats, 70 million dogs and 19 million birds - the number that has been microchipped is negligible.

AVID, a worldwide supplier, says its database holds 2.5 million registrations, an estimated 600,000 of them birds. U.S.-based HomeAgain's AKC-CAR service currently has 1.1 million pets in its database, including tattooed and banded animals, with bird customers numbering 1,259, about the same as horses.

Nobody knows how many birds have been reunited with their owners thanks to microchips, but it's probably not very many, says Dr. Chris Sanders, the California vet.

For this reason, he thinks only those who worry about theft should invest in microchips.

"It's not unusual for a thief to steal 100 birds from a breeder in some cases. Then it would be cool to be able to recover them with microchips."

Some people also bring their birds in for microchips if they're going overseas and need to prove ownership, says Sanders, who chips between 10 and 20 birds a year.

Otherwise, he doesn't see much point in it. "Just keep in touch with the shelter and if someone brings your bird in, it's easy enough for you to go down and identify it."

The one bird his clinic discovered chipped couldn't be traced to the owner because of an outdated address, he says.

Worth the trouble
Others swear by the peace of mind they say implants give them.

Running the Bay Area for Lost and Found Pets Web site convinced Candice Basham that microchipping is a good idea.

ďI know of many birds that have been found and claimed by the finder because the owner couldnít be located," she says. "When these birds go to the vetís, a microchip would have been a Godsend for the owner."

To protect her own parrot, an African grey named Kogi, Basham got him an AVID microchip.

The injection, she says, "happened so fast, Koji didnít even notice." Published 2002.


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