Doggie Tattoos Help Combat Theft, Cancer


Kaiser Clay is getting his first tattoo at 12 weeks old.

With a fine-point Sharpie felt pen, tattoo artist Visa Norman sketches a butterfly, no larger than a quarter, along with the words "My Butterfly" inside Kaiser Clay's ear.

He lies motionless, under general anesthesia, as Norman's vibrating needle burrows into the soft flesh, retracing the outlines in black with her tattoo gun, marking the design for life.

Kaiser Clay is flipped on his left side for a second tattoo -- a series of numbers in his ear.

Three months old may seem too young for a tattoo, but if you ask Kaiser Clay's owner, Roslyn Dunn-Alexander, she'll tell you, with a tear in her eye, if anything happened to her beloved blue American bull terrier, she'd be devastated.

"He's my butterfly," Dunn-Alexander says. "All I have to do is raise his ears and I know he's mine."

As an extra precaution, and in addition to the uniquely identifying numbers in Kaiser Clay's left ear, veterinarian Dr. Jacque Rosholm of Main Street Animal Clinic inserted a microchip under the puppy's scruff.


Kaiser Clay gets a series of numbers tattooed on his ear for identification. Research laboratories will not accept animals that are tattooed or micro-chipped.

Norman then etched a third tattoo, the microchip's code -- a combination of letter and numbers -- near the puppy's groin area.

"I tattooed the characters close together and smaller," Norman says. "So they'll grow with time."

Veterinarians have been tattooing companion animals and livestock for years, and for good reason.

Two million pets, according to the animal advocacy group, Last Chance for Animals, are stolen every year and used for laboratory research or dog-fighting rings.

Many pet owners, especially those who own pure-bred dogs -- shanghaied and exploited in puppy mills for their pedigrees -- are going to great lengths to keep their pets safe.

"(Tattooing) is something I recommend," Rosholm says. "But I definitely recommend it for health reasons."

Rosholm's dog, Liberty also was tattooed -- on his nose -- earlier in the day, but not for identification purposes.

Liberty is a white German shepherd. Over the years, Liberty's nose has lightened under the intense Arizona sun, and Rim country's high altitude.

Light-haired dogs, including cats and horses, are no different than fair-skinned humans -- they sunburn easier, and are more prone to skin cancer -- especially on their noses and the tips of their ears.

"I have seen animals up here, especially cats, that have half the side of their noses eaten away by cancer," Rosholm says. Dark tattoo ink, according to Rosholm, augments the skin's natural environmental defenses.

"It doesn't replace the melanin," Norman adds. "It just helps block the sun's rays."

In lower areas like the Valley, the National Weather Service reports that pollution and denser concentrations of air molecules help block the sun's ultraviolet radiation (UV). As the elevation increases, the junk in the air decreases, which is good for lungs, but bad for skin.

UV-B -- the radiation responsible for skin cancer -- has given Liberty's nose a dry, grayish-pink pallor covered with precancerous scabs.

"If Liberty died, I wouldn't want to go on living," Rosholm says, as she, and vet assistant Ken Robey hold a pre-sedated Liberty on the examination table as they administered the general anesthesia.

Robey slips a cone over Liberty's snout, just beneath his eyes: the gas delivered through the cone eases the dog into sedation.

To monitor his heart and breathing, Robey clips a sensor to Liberty's tongue.

As soon as Liberty's fully anesthetized, Norman slips on black latex gloves, positions her protective eyewear and straps on a surgical mask.

Norman slathers a lubricant on Liberty's nose before she dips her tattoo gun in a thimble-sized vile of black ink. The lubricant helps the ink settle as Norman grazes Liberty's nose with her tattoo gun.

To minimize costs and harm to your pet, Rosholm suggests coordinating procedures -- teeth cleaning, spaying or neutering, grooming, vaccinations and tattooing -- while the animal is knocked out.

The most common side effect, although rare, but easily treated with medication, is an allergic reaction to the ink.

All tattoo modifications are kept in the pets' medical records, and if your pet is ever lost or stolen, Rosholm says, the identifying marks will stand up in court. Meanwhile, research labs are prohibited from accepting animals with tattoos or microchips.

All animal tattooing must be done at Rosholm's clinic under general anesthesia.

"If the owner wants something a little more personalized, that's fine," Norman says. "But I will not pierce dogs. It's against our ethics."

For more information or to make an appointment, contact Main Street Animal Clinic at (928) 474-9292 or Valhalla Modifications (928) 472-4704.

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