Dozens of cats are trapped and brought to the Beaufort County Animal Shelter each month, and it's often impossible for shelter workers to distinguish between feral cats and family pets.
But a relatively inexpensive microchipping service now offered eliminates the guessing.
For $25, dog and cat owners can get the tiny chips inserted into their pets. Staff at the shelter also will register the chips for free, making it easier to track down owners if pets ever end up at the shelter.
Chips installed at a private veterinary clinic can cost up to $75 and often need to be registered with an online database, usually for a fee.
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Shelter director Tallulah Trice says the microchipping initiative is mostly targeting cats, which can arrive at the cramped shelter by the dozen, often without collars, tags or other means of identification.
"Dogs are not the issue, felines are the issue," Trice said Friday. "Microchipping would enable us to return them back to their owners. It's really and truly a way to identify a cat that is outside or has slipped outside without identification."
The chips are about a centimeter long and the width of a rice grain. They emit a signal that can be read by a special scanner used at shelters and animal hospitals.
Records show the county shelter received 202 cats in November, of which 104 were feral or sick and were euthanized. Another 84 were adopted or transferred to other shelters with more room.
Nineteen were reunited with their owners or released back to the wild after being sterilized, vaccinated and checked for illness under a trap-neuter-return program.
Although the shelter must wait five days before euthanizing an animal, Trice says feral cats can be put down the same day they arrive if they pose a risk to staff or other animals.
She said she worries some pet owners won't even know their outdoor cat is missing until it's too late.
Trice said all animals are checked for a microchip before they're euthanized.
Statistics from the Humane Society of the U.S. show only about 3 percent of cats that reach a shelter ever make it home.
KC Theisen, the Humane Society's director of pet care issues, says microchips are one of the best ways to reunite pets with their families quickly.
"A microchip is critical because it can't get lost, it can't fall off; they can't get it caught on something and lose it accidentally," said Theisen, who called the county's program a step in the right direction.
"A collar and tags, with a microchip, can increase the odds of a cat finding its way back to you. At the very least, it proves the cat is owned and cared for by someone, and that will prevent it from being quickly euthanized."
Franny Gerthoffer of the Hilton Head Humane Association said many shelters, including the humane association, make sure animals have microchips before they are adopted, but most animals still don't have them.
"I wish they would do it more," Gerthoffer said, noting that people forgetting to register the chips is another problem that can make it harder to track down owners.
Chips also are useful in proving ownership of pets that have been taken in by well-meaning strangers after getting lost, she said.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.