Marking and Identification of Free-Roaming populations of dogs and cats
An ACC&D Flagship Initiative
In May 2013, ACC&D hosted a Marking Think Tank to begin tackling how to mark and identify animals who have been non-surgically contracepted (temporary infertility) or sterilized (permanent infertility), as well as those who have been vaccinated against diseases such as rabies. The need is particularly acute for animals who roam freely. For these individuals, sterilization and vaccination can quite literally be lifesaving. Across the globe, some communities with large free-roaming dog populations agree to not impound or cull those animals who have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated. The same is true for free-roaming and feral cat populations. Increasing numbers of committees have committed to leave healthy sterilized cats in their outdoor homes; doing this, however, requires knowing that an animal has been spayed or neutered.
The ear tipping or notching that is currently used to identify surgically sterilized animals would not be humane for animals sterilized without anesthesia. And while traditional collars have many strengths, they are easily removed, and they cannot be used safely on a growing puppy.
As the Think Tank progressed, participants became increasingly intrigued by something on the ear to maximize visibility and identification with the naked eye, yet also able to accommodate RFID to capture and share more information about the cats and dogs who reside in our communities. Team members reached a consensus that existing use of tags has not been optimized in terms of either material or methodology; features such as durability, safety, and animal welfare can enhanced by making major modifications of the conventional ear “tag.”
Our current work:
In June 2014, Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future approved a generous grant to support faculty, undergraduate, and graduate students from Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Human Ecology Fiber Science & Apparel Design, and College of Engineering to work with ACC&D in a novel and interdisciplinary initiative to develop a prototype tag. We also benefitted greatly from volunteers from Oregon to Ohio to North Carolina!
We began by evaluating potential tag materials for their weight, flexibility, breathability, resistance to tearing, cost, and durability, particularly in different weather conditions. We determined that solution-dyed acrylic fabric--the same type that's used in outdoor patio cushions, for example--best fit these requirements. We laser-cut fabric into circles and hexagons, about one inch at their widest point, in multiple colors to convey information such as timing of rabies vaccine, contraception, or sterilization. In addition, the fabric can accommodate an RFID tag to communicate even more information about an animal.
As one group was looking at fabric selection, another tackled the challenge of applying the tag, with comfort and safety for animals being the top priority. We concluded that a price-tagging "gun" showed greatest promise for creating a tiny hole through which a fastener can be threaded and hold the tag in place. The "gun" is quiet, inexpensive, and accommodates a new needle for each animal. In fact, we discovered that the price tagging "gun" and fastener have been successfully used to mark and identify guinea pigs!
DVM student and team member Eloise Cucui took the prototype tag and applicator to the field in summer 2015. She collaborated with a veterinarian and shelter in Romania that has historically used hard plastic livestock tags to mark animals who were sterilized. In an abundance of caution for the dogs' welfare, Eloise applied the tag while animals were under anesthesia for spay/neuter surgery. The results were promising! There were no signs of infection or pain, and dogs did not seem at all bothered by the tag in the ear.
Next steps: We're very encouraged by the results of the summer study. The next step for dogs will be to conduct longer and larger field trials to further evaluate the tags' durability and retention. It will also be important to evaluate application in unanesthetized dogs, since the ability to do this with minimal discomfort will make the marker truly "field-worthy." We have done some preliminary outreach to gauge community attitudes toward and acceptance of an ear tag, but this will also be a priority.
We also haven't forgotten the felines! A marker could be an asset not only to traditional Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs, but also to initiatives using multi-year contraceptives for free-roaming cats. We are currently exploring ways to adapt the prototype dog ear tag in a way that it will be safe, comfortable, and effective for cats.
Photo credit: Eloise Cucui (dog tag photo)