© 2023 MJH Life Sciences™ and dvm360 | Veterinary News, Veterinarian Insights, Medicine, Pet Care. All rights reserved.
Pet identification for the exotic animal
Using microchips, leg bands, shell labels, and other methods to identify
The owners of exotic pets love their extraordinary animals. They provide them with specialized husbandry and veterinary care, seek out species-specific diets, and among other things want identification for their pets as well. They may be interested in individual identification for their animals if they have concerns surrounding their pet getting lost, such as a bird that may escape through an open door or a tortoise that might mischievously break out of a backyard pen. Other times, identification needs are necessary for breeding facilities that must keep track of the many family lineages they are producing. Furthermore, many of the exotic animal species that we keep, although common in captivity, are sparse in the wild, so they have importation and exportation rules and regulations. Thus, for owners traveling with their exotic pet or moving to another country, individual identification may be prudent.
Microchips are “passive integrated transponders” (PIT) and in the field biology setting are often referred to as PIT tags. They rely on what is known as radio frequency identification technology. This technology uses a specialized reader to provide the energy of communication with the microchip and thus the microchip itself has no battery. Microchips are small inert implants that can be inserted under the skin or into the muscle or abdominal body cavity and can remain in good working condition for decades. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has worked with producers to ensure that different brands of microchips can be read by all microchip readers. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers in the United States are ISO certified. Should your animal become lost, any veterinary clinic, animal shelter, or other organization with a universal reader can verify your animal’s identification number, and often a phone number of the manufacturer’s microchip registry. For this purpose, the pet owner must maintain their updated contact information in a microchip number registry to connect their ownership with the number that identifies their animal.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has developed guidelines for implantation locations on companion animals to elicit optimal contact between the microchip and reader. There may be some regional variances in implant location, and uncommonly, microchips may migrate to a new location if implanted subcutaneously. It is important to scan the entire animal if a microchip is not found to ensure one has not been missed. The microchip implant in small mammals (< 17-cm spinal length) is located subcutaneously between the scapulae. Although larger, rabbits and ferrets are still typically implanted in this location as well. Veterinarians also use this implantation site for canines and felines (except in Europe). Larger mammals are implanted subcutaneously at the base of the left ear. In birds over 5.5 kg, the implantation site is subcutaneous at the base of the neck. For smaller birds, the microchip is implanted into the left pectoral muscle. Reptiles are a diverse group and have various implantation sites. For turtles and tortoises, the implantation is subcutaneous or intramuscular, as size allows, in the proximal left hind limb (Image 1). In crocodilians, the microchip is implanted subcutaneously over the neck, anterior to the large nuchal scales. Small lizards (< 12.5-cm snout to vent length) receive intracoelomic implantations, whereas large lizards receive subcutaneous ones in the left inguinal region. Interestingly, the WSAVA recommends that snakes be implanted subcutaneously on the left side of the neck. For many species this causes undue stress, and for the person implanting or scanning the microchip a risk of a painful or even venomous bite. It is for this reason that many clinicians and field biologists implant in a location similar to that used for lizards, subcutaneously over the left caudal coelom. Amphibians are implanted subcutaneously or into the lymphatic sac along the dorsum. Fish can be implanted in the left side of the coelomic cavity if small (< 30 cm), or subcutaneously on the left side of the dorsal fin’s anterior base.
Bird leg bands
Leg bands are often used to identify birds. Birds of prey, kept by falconers or tracked by biologists, will have crimped “lock-on” or riveted bands placed around the leg above the foot. More commonly, breeders of pet exotic birds will place size-appropriate rings or closed bands around hatchlings, such that when the bird grows, the foot will become too large to pull out of the band. It is now considered a permanent means of identification. Open bands are “C” shaped, which can be closed around an adult bird’s leg for identification but are considered nonpermanent. A common use for such bands is to identify a bird once it has been sexed as male or female. A band will be placed on the right leg to indicate a male, and on the left to indicate a female. Identification bands typically have stamped text that corresponds to the breeder, and an individual number for the bird. The American Federation of Aviculture maintains an Exotic Bird Registry, where bird bands, as well as microchip numbers, can be connected with owner contact information.
Bird leg bands typically last the lifetime of the animal without problems or concerns. Uncommonly, there are instances where they can cause trauma to the leg or make an injury worse by constricting a leg that has become inflamed for other reasons. It is important to look for problems with a bird band during regular health checks. As bird legs can easily be damaged or broken, if a band needs to be removed, it should be done so by a veterinarian.
Shell labels and other identification methods
For turtles and tortoises, a simple, externally visible means of identification is to create a label and epoxy it to a scute on the carapace (Image 2). The label can include any information desired, such as an identification number, the animal’s name, and even the owner’s name and contact information. The label can also be simple text printed on a piece of paper and cut to size. A clear, 5-minute epoxy covers the label and fixes it onto a scute. This is typically a caudal scute that is less likely to be worn or damaged by digging or other abrasive activities. It is important for placement to be in the center of a scute and not across the seam of 2 scutes as this may inhibit proper growth.
There is a plethora of other means of identification for pet exotic animals. Many have origins and primary uses in the laboratory, zoological, or field biology setting. A noninclusive list of these includes tattoos, various methods of branding, toe clipping, ear notching, scale clipping, scute notching, and color-coordinated visible implant fluorescent elastomer that is injected and remains visible under the skin. Most of these methods are traumatic and few are used in pet animals. If a pet animal has any of these means of identification, it likely originated from one of these scientific settings.
There are many good reasons to have permanent identification for your pet. Of equal importance is to have your pet’s identification number registered and to maintain up-to-date contact information in the registry. Doing so greatly increases the chances of your pet being returned to you should it become lost.
Ian Kanda, RVT, VTS (Exotics), is a veterinary technician at the Pet Hospital of Penasquitos, in San Diego, California. Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, he earned a Diploma of Animal Health Technology from Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and is a veterinary technician specialist in clinical practice for exotic companion animals. His research interests include hematology of exotic pets and wildlife, wildlife conservation, amphibian anesthesia, and clinical procedures for minute patients.