Geneva has just become the first Swiss canton to make it compulsory for all dogs to be fitted with an electronic chip. Owners have been told to fit the devices, known as electronic fleas, by the end of the year.
Until December 31, veterinary surgeries in the canton are offering a special discount rate of SFr55 to insert the fleas, which are not much bigger than a pin-head. It could be money well spent, as after January 1, owners whose dogs are found without the chip will face a stiff fine.
The authorities are convinced the new system will be far superior to the old one.
"Since 1967, all dogs have had to wear a collar with the name and address of the owner, But this system is simply not reliable," says Astride Rod, head of the Cantonal Veterinary Office. "On numerous occasions we've been faced with situations where dogs have lost their collars or had them pulled off in a fight, and it's been impossible to track down the owner."
"The electronic flea is lodged under the skin, it will carry on working longer than the dog's life. It's a reliable and completely fail-safe system," she told swissinfo.
Rod says the dog suffers no pain when the device is inserted: "It's just like injecting a vaccine - only the needle is just a little bit bigger. You don't have to use an anaesthetic, and it doesn't hurt the animal."
Once the flea has been settled into its new home in the dog's left shoulder, the vet reads its unique code with a scanner. This information is then passed on to the national database, the Animal Identity Service. Its staff then pass on the details to a European database and put them on an Internet website.
The electronic chip has been available for a number of years, but it has been optional. More than 50,000 dogs have so far been registered with the Animal Identity Service, which is based in Berne. The vast majority of these animals no doubt belong to responsible masters. Geneva is the first canton to make the electronic tags obligatory. Only one other canton, Neuchatel, has a compulsory dog identification scheme - in the form of tattoos inside the ear.
"The main benefit is proving who the owner is if there's a dispute. People often get into fights over the ownership of the dogs. Often the paperwork has been lost. With the new system, the dog obviously belongs to the person in whose name it was registered," Astride Rod explains.
"There are also benefits for the animal. Between 550 and 600 dogs are lost in Geneva every year. Some run away and some are stolen. And thanks to this flea, we can reunite them with their owners much more quickly. Being with a different family and having a different diet can be very stressful for a dog. Furthermore, the quicker the owner is found, the less it costs the canton," she says.
There are an estimated 20,000 dogs in canton Geneva, 18,000 of whose owners pay their dog licence. It's hoped that the electronic flea will make it easier to track down irresponsible owners, to ensure that all dogs are inoculated against disease and keep a closer watch on the trade in animals.
"We don't have packs of stray dogs running around Geneva," says Rod. "But we do have a small minority of negligent owners, who seem to forget sometimes that they have a dog, or who deliberately abandon their animal."
by Roy Probert