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Cat scans could soon take on a new meaning in Erie County.

County lawmakers are being asked to lend an ear to a proposal that would replace dog licenses with a registration system involving computer chip implants for every dog and cat.

The implants would aid in identifying lost or stolen animals, and provide animal shelters and veterinarians with a quick link to owner and medical information.

Microchips already are carried by a small number of local pets, and many animal shelters already have electronic scanners.

"We scan every dog that comes in," said George May, superintendent of the Erie County SPCA.

The Niagara Veterinary Society and the County Health Department are joining forces to try to persuade the Legislature Health Committee to call for a mandatory registration program here.

The program could complement and possibly eventually succeed licensing on a state level, backers said.

Registration would mean that every dog and cat would carry a microchip implanted between its shoulder blades. The chip would have a unique identifying number, detectable by electronic scanner, and the number would key in owner and medical information on file in a central data bank.

Several hundred animals already carry chips, but they are a small fraction of the county's pet population. At the SPCA, scanners turn up about two microchip-carrying animals per year.

If the chips become mandatory, it would cut down the number of lost pets that never make it back to their heartbroken owners, veterinarians say.

It also might save 200 or so collarless animals, mostly cats, that are destroyed for rabies testing after they bite someone. An implant costs $25 to $35, depending on clinic, veterinarians say.

Dr. Linda Hunter of the Ellicott Small Animal Hospital said 5 to 10 percent of owners now request implants.

"The chip is injected under the skin with a needle," she said. "It is really tiny."

Implants and rabies shots would be required and neutering would cut the registration fee to almost nothing, said John Eiss, Erie County senior public health sanitarian.

Every time a resident is bitten by a stray or wild animal, the Health Department must determine whether the person was possibly exposed to rabies.

"I can tell you, for last year, we had 2,374 animal bites, and a lot of them resulted in destruction of animals, mostly wild animals," said Eiss.

So far this year, the county has had 13 definite cases of rabid animals, including 11 raccoons. But in the course of a year, the county will spend $100,000 to $150,000 for protective shots of persons who may have been exposed to rabies.

Human beings cannot afford to wait for confirmation that they are infected.

"Rabies is 100 percent fatal once you get the symptoms," said Eiss.

Suspect animals included 1,500 cats and dogs, with about 200 killed after no owner showed up during a waiting period of five days so tissues could go to Albany for rabies testing.

Microchips in domestic animals provide a quick way to check on ownership and inoculations, he said.

Dr. Richard Thoma, of the Town and Country Animal Clinic in Cheektowaga, told legislators that he has a commercial connection with one of the companies that sells microchips and provides free scanners to animal shelters. It also maintains the central registration linking microchip numbers to owners.

Microchips last, while tags often get lost and numerical tattoos fade, he argues.

"Tattoos are hard to read on a wet nasty dog," said Dr. Thoma. "I've had dog wardens tell me if its a rainy, wet day they are not going to turn a dog over looking for a tattoo."

Toronto has a dog and cat registry law with a discount for microchipping and neutering, he said.

Eventually microchips will carry information that can save the life of a lost dog as a medical bracelet may now help protect humans.

"The real technical breakthroughs will be in future generations," said Dr. James V. Brown, of the Blue Cross Small Animal Clinic, Amherst. "They will be able to give us readouts of current blood glucose level, for instance."

Someday people may want to have the same sort of implants, he said.

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