Marking and Identification of Free-Roaming populations of dogs and cats
An ACC&D Flagship Initiative
ACC&D has been tackling the challenge of 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 communities have committed to leave healthy sterilized cats in their outdoor homes. 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.
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.
Our current work:
A Think Tank on this topic led to the consensus that existing use of ear tags has not been optimized in terms of either material or methodology. Features such as durability, safety, and animal welfare can be enhanced by making major modifications of the conventional ear “tag.” Our work thus far has focused on developing a different ear tag design intended specifically for dogs and cats. Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future provided 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 and could accommodate an RFID tag to communicate even more information about an animal. We further 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; in fact, this application method has been successfully used to mark and identify guinea pigs.
The prototype tag has been evaluated in three separate studies, with mixed results. In dogs, Cornell 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. Unfortunately, results in a small follow-up “real world” study of free-roaming dogs in a rabies vaccination campaign in 2016 were not so encouraging. Even with a topical anesthetic, dogs exhibited discomfort with application, and tags were lost relatively quickly (a process that caused no damage to the ear).
A small study started in 2016 in indoor-outdoor pet cats, which applied tags when cats were anesthetized for dental work, also yielded promising results in terms of cats’ responses to wearing the tag, retention, and lack of irritation or infection. We continue to monitor retention of the tag in most of these cats.
Next steps: Given the outcome of a field study in dogs, ACC&D believes that this tag does not have enough viability to justify further trials or exploration of stronger fastener options for dogs. Due to preliminary retention outcomes in indoor-outdoor cats, combined with the likelihood that feral cats would require sedation for even non-surgical fertility control in the field, we believe that there is potential to further evaluate this tag prototype in free-roaming cats with use of sedation and analgesia, and under guidance of a Board-certified veterinary anesthesiologist. We are currently planning for this study.
Photo credit: Eloise Cucui (dog tag photo)