High-tech pets soon may be the only kind of animals adopted at Maricopa County's animal shelters.
Officials from the county's Animal Care and Control Department want to require that all animals adopted at their facilities go home with a microchip implanted under the skin to identify the pet's owner.
On Wednesday, the county Board of Supervisors agreed to hold a public hearing June 4 to determine whether to begin the microchipping effort.
"Microchipping is all about making sure animals get home," said Julie Bank, a department spokeswoman. "It's an excellent form of identification."
Department officials want to begin the program July 1. If approved, microchipping would add $15 to adoption fees, which come on a sliding scale. The average fee is $85.
County Supervisor Fulton Brock, R-District 1 of Chandler, said he is worried that the additional fee will make adoptions less affordable and prevent people from taking home a dog or cat.
"My goal is to keep the costs as low as possible so we can make it a positive financial experience," Brock said. "I'd like to see it be optional because I think that it keeps the cost lower."
Bank said the department is concerned about costs, but past fee increases have not lowered adoption rates, which already are lower than the $150 it costs the county to sterilize animals and prepare them for adoption. Adding microchips to the adoption process will benefit the department, pets and their owners, she said.
Because state law requires that dogs are licensed, the county assigns metal tags to dogs before they are adopted. Licensing cats is optional. Metal tags are often ineffective, though, because collars sometimes don't stay on pets, or owners move without updating their contact information.
Microchips, which are now offered with pet adoptions, are ideal because they are permanent, injected with a syringe into the scruff of the animal's neck, Bank said. When a lost pet is picked up by the county, shelter staff can wave a hand-held scanner over the animal and wait for a beep, which signals the presence of the chip, which is the size of a grain of rice, containing a bar code. That code is linked to the owner's address and telephone number.
It's technology for the four-legged world, but it's also a critical tool in the department's effort to become the nation's first county no-kill shelter by 2006, Bank said.
During the past five years, statistics show the department has made significant strides toward lowering euthanasia and increasing adoption rates. Since 1998, adoptions have increased by the hundreds each year. And except for a spike in 1999, euthanasia rates have declined. Last year, animal killings dropped by 4,025, the county's largest drop in five years.
But county animal authorities have struggled with the decreasing number of animals they are able to return to owners each year. In 1998, 7,195 pets were picked up by their owner compared with 6,271 last year. Bank said microchipping could help boost those numbers, alleviating crowding at the county's animal shelters in Mesa and Phoenix, and lowering the risk that lost pets will face euthanasia.
There were 5,837 animals euthanized last year because of space constraints, the third most-common reason for euthanasia in the county. Disease and temperament were the two top reasons animals were put down. As the fastest-growing county in the nation, Maricopa County's population boom has brought more pets to the Valley. About 150 to 200 animals arrive in the county's shelters each day.
With required microchipping in place, the department estimates that 23,000 microchips will be implanted in the first year of the program. Ensuring the microchips are effective, however, will require owners to update their contact information. Outdated information will do little to reunite owners with their pets, Bank said.
"Our goal is to get as many animals that come in, back home," she said. "If we're able to get one more animal out of our facilities, it's worth it."
Jannelle Cosgriff, spokeswoman for Friends For Life Animal Sanctuary in Gilbert, said her group is all for the microchipping.
The sanctuary microchips all of its dogs and cats.
“(Animals) don't speak our known language when they're lost. They can't tell you their address, or give their driver’s license. It's up to us to find them. If they have a permanent identification, they will have some kind of calling card with them at all times.”