Last week I learned a lot more than I intended about microchipping pets. That’s because our cat Milo had been missing for more than a month. With all the bobcat, mountain lion and coyote sightings, and the big freeze, I’d lost hope.

My little furball was somewhat of a community cat – likely a feral cat that my boys picked up as a kitten. He is definitely our pet – socialized, neutered and chipped – but he’s hard to contain in the house. By day he hangs out in the neighborhood. By night he asks to come in and sleeps on our son’s bed and has done so for the past 10 years.

Whatever happened to Milo, it wasn’t good. When animal services called, the officer warned me that Milo was in rough shape. That was an understatement; he was on death’s door. The vet confirmed that he’d lost half his body weight, was severely dehydrated, had infections, failing kidneys and hypothermia. We didn’t know if he’d make it.

It seems incredibly lucky that animal services found him in the nick of time. The responding officer had the foresight to scan the cat, and in what I understand to be a rare instance, the cat was chipped with a registered and working phone number. He said it almost never happens.

Last year El Paso Animal Services brought in 12,488 animals. Ramon Herrera, the interim department director, told me that only about 20% of those were microchipped – despite the legal requirement. That has been the law since 2010 under Title 7 of the city code.

Herrera says they have trained animal protection officers to do a thorough scan for chips, which can apparently travel in the body. They’ve even found them in the foot and they can fall out when first implanted.

There’s also been a big shift in mindset at the department. It used to be that successful officers were considered to be the ones who picked up the most pets. Now they are encouraged to return the most pets and hopefully keep them out of the shelter altogether.

In my case, it worked exactly like it’s supposed to, and we are very grateful. Milo is home and recovering, contained in his sleeping buddy’s room. Prognosis looks good.

For its part, the city department has been working on ways to increase the number of microchipped pets because, as Herrera says, it’s the best way to keep pets and families together. Just before the COVID-19 shutdown a year ago, animal services held a huge event providing free microchips and other services to 800 animals.

Community events have been halted due to the pandemic, but three weeks ago the team introduced a pilot program called Resource Rovers. The rovers – an animal protection officer and a vet tech – are going into neighborhoods to interact with the public and microchip just about anything they see. It’s as simple as approaching someone who’s walking their dog, offering to chip the pet for free or make sure that the chip is registered and the contact information is up to date. Herrera says in the first two weeks, they chipped 200 animals. They also can help update your chip on the spot.

Getting people to register and keep their chips updated is a huge challenge. A few months ago, we rescued a lost dog with an unregistered chip. We located its owners eventually, but if they had registered the chip, they could have saved everyone a lot of distress, time and effort. This is the second dog that we’ve found with an unregistered chip.

The city has also added more microchip scanning locations to make recovery easier. Fire stations are now equipped with scanners and before COVID there were plans to add them to recreation centers. Herrera said the technology has made it easier, and they are looking at more ways to make scanners accessible. Maybe someday we can have solar-powered chip scanners at any park much like a price checker at the end of a Target aisle.

But the scan will only read the chip number, and then you must locate the chip registration if it even exists. There are many chip providers, each with its own registry. To help, Herrera recommends PetMicrochipLookup.org, an online tool that searches databases of participating chip registries. It’s a good idea to enter your pet’s chip number and see what comes up. You bet I did!

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