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Originally published Sunday, May 13, 2012 at 1:00 PM

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The digital lost-dog poster

Pet-chip technology, which allows lost or stolen pets to be readily identified, has become a big business. But how well do they work?

The New York Times

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"Bonnie is missing" blared the email subject line. A 2-year-old female pit bull weighing 55 pounds, with gray and white markings, she was last seen on the corner of Maple Avenue and Myrtle Street in my community, wearing a chain collar. "I am asking for your help in finding my lost dog," her owner pleaded.

I immediately felt a pang of anxiety. And then one of confusion. Exactly what was I supposed to do with this information? It appeared on my smartphone because I recently got a new puppy and, while Riley was under the ether being spayed, the veterinarian's assistant recommended inserting a chip for identification purposes.

My previous dog's identification had consisted of a nylon collar and metal tag; the chip sounded Big Brother-ish, if not unnecessary. But the assistant assured me that "everyone" does it these days, so that lost or stolen pets can be readily identified if brought to a shelter or veterinarian's office. A scanning wand would be waved over my golden retriever's back, her ID number would pop up, and we would be notified of her whereabouts.

Gazing into Riley's molten brown eyes, the assistant said, "Wouldn't you want to be sure that she comes home?" I signed the paperwork immediately.

Unbeknown to me, along with the chip came a year's free "premium" membership from HomeAgain, the largest provider of pet chips in the United States. By registering Riley with HomeAgain, I had unwittingly become one of 850,000 PetRescuers who receive regular electronic alerts about missing animals in their area.

While pet-chip technology has been around for nearly two decades, the industry has recently taken a commercial turn, spawning new ventures, including membership programs and social networking. What was once a simple process — inject a tiny transponder the size of a grain of rice between a pet's shoulder blades and pay a one-time registration fee — has become a big business, with annual charges for benefits ranging from online distribution of customized lost-pet notices to discounted flights for missing pets found hundreds of miles away.

Gary MacPhee, the general manager of HomeAgain, which is a subsidiary of Merck & Co., said, "We wanted pet owners to belong to our organization and we thought we could add value with our services."

HomeAgain's website features cautionary tales from pet owners (like the self-recriminating video, "We Didn't Even Know Gucci Was Gone," about a missing miniature schnauzer) and alarming statistics: One out of three dogs and cats will be lost during its lifetime.

According to the American Humane Association, last year more than 7 million dogs and cats went missing; only about 17 percent of lost dogs and 2 percent of lost cats find their way back from shelters to their original owners. More than 10 million pets are euthanized every year because their owners can't be found. HomeAgain's website has a ticker counting pet recoveries tracked to chip technology; as of late April, it clocked 1,016,843 such reunions.

But not all pet owners are sold on chips.

Mary Ellen Feeley of Riverside, Conn., agreed to have a chip inserted in her Labrador retriever, Maggie. When she recently added a golden retriever, Dusty, to her household, she opted out.

"I thought the chip was more of a scare tactic when we got Maggie," she said. "I have never heard of any of my friends relying on the chip to find their dog. The collar tag, as antiquated as it might be, seems like a reliable methodology."

Most recoveries are still done by collar tag, said Tom Sharp, an American Kennel Club official.

"It's more likely that your dog will wind up on your neighbor's property than in the local animal shelter," he said. "But a chip is still the only way to permanently identify your dog as belonging to you."

Since 1995, the kennel club has offered its own nonprofit chip service, Companion Animal Recovery. Until 2005, the service had a partnership with HomeAgain, which produced the chips; when that contract expired, the two organizations parted ways.

"They wanted to increase their revenue through annual fees and add-ons, so we split up," Sharp said.

Today the kennel-club service charges a one-time fee of $19.95, which enrolls a pet in its database for life (HomeAgain charges $39 for enrollment). Kennel club customers can also pay a one-time fee of $15 for lifetime membership in its lost-pet recovery program, which includes a 24-hour hotline. HomeAgain charges $17.99 a year for its package of benefits; its newest feature is an iPhone and Android app that lets users upload photos of lost pets and delivers alerts with a bark or meow.

Some pet owners find the alerts distressing and confess to not opening them or to unsubscribing from them. Others shrug them off.

"I would rather get three emails a day about lost pets in my neighborhood than 20 emails from stores I rarely shop at," said Sharp of the kennel club.

MacPhee acknowledges that not every HomeAgain customer appreciates such services; after the free first year, about half decline to renew the membership (the registration information remains active in the company's database). But he anticipates increasing the PetRescuer network to 3 million people by 2013 — partly by enrolling people who do not actually own pets. (They can submit their email and ZIP code and request to be notified about lost pets within 5, 10 or 25 miles of their home.)

"Early triage is the No. 1 thing that gets pets found," he said. "The distribution of information is really what helps find your animal."

Yet some pet experts think the chips provide a false sense of security.

Claudia Devita, a Fairfield County, Conn., breeder, urges clients to understand the system's limitations.

"There is no quick cure to finding a lost dog, even with a chip," she said. "Your dog has to be lucky enough to be returned to a place that has a scanner to check the number on the chip and then a way of contacting you. The only foolproof way to keep your pet safe is with making sure the dog is either walked on a leash or kept inside a yard with a fence."

Indeed, unreliable or incompatible scanner technology remains a nagging issue for chip providers. A chip is essentially a tiny transponder that uses radio frequency waves to transmit data, including registration and vendor contact information.

Each chip can be activated by a handheld scanner, but competing companies use different frequencies to send signals. Several chip vendors now produce universal scanners and give them to animal shelters at low cost or free, but there is no guarantee that a particular chip will be recognized.

"The government has not mandated that all pet organizations acquire universal scanners," said Sharp of the American Kennel Club. "So it's still possible that a pet's chip won't be read properly if he turns up at a shelter."

As for me, I can't bring myself to delete or ignore the lost-pet alerts that pop up regularly on my smartphone. The latest one: "Farrah is missing," described a 4-year-old female cat, weighing 12 pounds, with a black-and-white tuxedo coat. Her mug shot was adorable, and the online map showed a little green marker with a tiny paw print near my neighborhood. I'm rooting for her safe return.

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