Basia, a 10-year-old black and white domestic shorthair cat, was stretched out on the exam room table with her mouth wide open, under anesthesia after having her teeth cleaned.
Veterinarian Tanya Martof grabbed the skin above Basia's neck and slipped a syringe inside, inserting a microchip the size of a grain of rice. It bore a bar code that contained her owner's name and address. Basia slept soundly through the 30-second procedure Friday morning at Flower Valley Veterinary Clinic in Rockville.
"It's so quick," Martof marveled. "You just scan it, and you know who the owner is."
Gone are the days when owners relied solely on collars to make sure their pets could be returned if they strayed too far. An estimated 2 million cats and dogs carry microchip identifiers.
Early next month, the Montgomery County Council will consider a law requiring any animal that lands in the county shelter to receive the implant, which can be read by scanners linked to a database of owner information.
"If a dog is lost or an animal is picked up for whatever reason, its owner can be located whether or not there's a collar or other identifying features," said County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, which endorsed the proposal last week.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) is pushing for the chip so that Montgomery's 10 animal control officers can keep better track of animals, especially dangerous ones. The county recorded 1,112 reports of animal bites last year.
"If a dog is declared potentially dangerous or dangerous and it is microchipped, then there's no disputing the identification of the dog," said Capt. Wayne Jerman, director of the Animal Services Division. "You have a lot more to go on than visual identification."
The measure also would change the legal definition of an animal bite, which currently requires skin to be broken. Under Duncan's original proposal, a person did not have to show evidence of a bite but merely give testimony. Members of the council's Public Safety Committee decided that some proof, such as teeth marks or torn clothing, should be presented.
The committee also made concessions to animals that are provoked. Under the proposal, they would be spared such punishments as muzzling or, in the most extreme cases, euthanasia.
Still, some animal advocates are worried that changing the definition of a bite could put innocent, playful dogs in danger.
"Lots of dogs nip and play, puppies in particular," said Margaret Zanville, president of the Montgomery County Humane Society. "It should be shown that the animal intended to bite."
Microchipping, too, has detractors.
Last year, a different type of chip popular in Europe was introduced in the United States, but it could not be read by a majority of scanners in animal shelters and veterinary clinics. The Coalition for Reuniting Pets and Families, which includes several shelters and humane societies, was formed in response and called on manufacturers to create scanners that can read all types of chips.
"No one should rely on the microchip right now to be the sole provider for getting your animal home," said Kate Pullen, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States. "The microchip is meant to be the backup. More so now, the collar should be the primary identifier."
Nonetheless, the Montgomery County Humane Society, which runs the county's animal shelter, supports Duncan's effort. The society will charge about $10 to inject the chip, less than what it costs at a veterinary clinic.
About 8 million animals stray from their homes each year, and only a small percentage return, according to some animal advocacy groups. Collars and tattoos, which many people turned to years ago as a way of identifying their animals, have not always been effective in reuniting pets with their owners, Zanville said.
"A collar and a tag, these things can be removed. Tattoos can be removed," she said. "But with a microchip, that doesn't happen."
Tatiana Usherson, a veterinary technician and owner of four dogs and two cats, said she can attest to the microchip's effectiveness. Bird, one of her domestic shorthair cats, slipped through a sliding glass door 2 1/2 years ago. Usherson searched all over her Silver Spring neighborhood. She put up fliers. She visited the humane society. When her pet didn't turn up, she figured he had died.
Four months ago, Bird wandered into a home six doors down from Usherson. When the person who found him took him to get a checkup last week, the veterinarian scanned him for a microchip and figured out that he belonged to Usherson.
Bird, now 10 years old, is back home.