County animal shelters are creating more pet-owner emotional reunions with the help of technology that has become state of the art in the last decade.

More owners are getting dogs, cats, rabbits, farm animals and even horses implanted with microchips. The tiny radio transponders, the size of a grain of rice, give contact information for the pet owners.

The reunions can be dramatic. On April 30, after U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested a woman on suspicion of human smuggling in San Diego, two dogs in the woman’s possession were impounded and brought to the animal shelter.

Officers scanned and found a microchip in one dog. Eventually that Shih Tzu bounded into the arms of its Whittier owner after the dog had been stolen more than a year before, said DeSousa. The second dog, a beagle mix, was a stray, and the Whittier woman’s daughter adopted it.

“Having your animal microchipped ensures that your pet has a ticket home,” said Dawn Danielson, director of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services.

“Every Thursday at our facilities, from 1 to 3 o’clock, we offer microchipping and we’ll take care of national registration for $20,” said Dan DeSousa, lieutenant with the San Diego County Department of Animal Services. “Way too often we hear the story of the owner who gave the dog a bath and took his collar off. This is just another form of identification that gets the animal home right away.”

Twenty dollars is a standard for the service at most county facilities. Occasionally, counties have promotions with lower prices to encourage microchipping.

On a more somber note, the microchip ID sometimes provides peace of mind and closure for the owner after an animal is found dead in a car accident.

Before microchipping, owner-pet reunions were a long shot, said Melissa Bishop, supervisor of the Plumas County Animal Shelter. Microchipping caught on first in urban areas, and in the last few years has accelerated in rural areas like Plumas County, she said.

“It’s on the rise and that’s a good thing,” Bishop said.

Solano County annually microchips about 2,800 animals, said Ron Whitfield, manager of the county’s Animal Care Services. That is mostly dogs and cats, but also rabbits, goats and llamas, he said.

In 2007, Solano passed an ordinance requiring the microchipping of animals that were adopted or otherwise released from county Animal Care Services. In the first year, that resulted in a 3 percent increase in the number of stray animals found with microchips. In subsequent years, that increase was up 5 to 10 percent, Whitfield said.

The microchip scanner located one dog apparently stolen from Oklahoma, he said, and many dogs taken from Oregon and Washington.

County animal shelters work with a handful of national companies that maintain databases linking pet microchips with contact information for the owners.

Implanting a microchip under loose skin between the shoulder blades with a syringe doesn’t hurt the animal, DeSousa said. The process takes about five minutes.

San Diego in the late 1990s was one of the first counties to start implanting microchips, DeSousa said.

Microchipping was valuable in bringing home horses that fled stables and galloped along ridgelines in 2003 during the extensive wildfires in San Diego County, DeSousa said.

In San Diego County’s three animal shelters, from May 5, 2009, through May 4, 2010, there were 4,543 pets reclaimed by their owners. Of those, 1,670 had a microchip implanted in them when they were impounded, DeSousa said, although not all of those reunions were directly attributable to the microchips.

Lance Howland can be reached at