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Why do Some Shelter Dogs Have Tattoos?

Julie Sprankles is a freelance writer living in the storied city of Charleston, SC. When she isn't slinging sass for SheKnows, she enjoys watching campy SyFy creature features (Pirahnaconda, anyone?), trolling the internet for dance work...

If it looks like the dog you just adopted has a tat, you're not seeing things — there's a reason for it

You've probably heard of people getting tattoos of their dogs, but it might throw you for a loop if you come across a dog with a tattoo. Yet, such things do exist — particularly among pups up for adoption. But why do some shelter dogs have tattoos? Well, to answer that is to walk through a revolving door of more questions surrounding the efficacy and humaneness of this trend.

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When you think of tattoos, your mind's eye likely jumps straight to artistic designs like the ones inked on people: a butterfly on an ankle, an anchor on a bicep, typography on a torso. When it comes to tattoos on shelter dogs, though, you'll need to dramatically scale back your imagination.

According to PETA, shelters and adopting families sometimes choose to use tattoos as a safeguard against dogs getting lost.

"To make doubly sure that their animals are returned if lost or stolen, many caretakers also have their animals tattooed on their inner thigh with an identification number — such as their social security number — in their veterinarian's office or at a tattoo clinic. Unlike microchips, tattoos are visible (as long as the hair over the tattoo is thin or kept shaved or clipped short) and more noticeable to a person or animal shelter that may not have microchip scanning capabilities or knowledge of scanning technology," the website explains.

A similar variety of minimalist tattoo is also sometimes used to signify surgical status of a shelter pet. As stated on MyPetsDoctor.com (with visuals), "Veterinarians use small, straight-line tattoos when pets are spayed or neutered to let future caregivers know that this particular pet no longer has internal reproductive organs."

The theory here is that if a dog's surgery healed so well that no surgical scars remained visible, one may not be able to tell if a dog had been "fixed." The tattoos would then hopefully circumvent the need for exploratory abdominal surgery to get a concrete answer to the query.

Things get complicated, however, when people take it upon themselves to tattoo their pets. By their logic, if shelters are tattooing dogs and PETA even references it on their website, it must be OK, right?

Only, we're not talking about tiny lines or short sequences of numbers here. Take, for instance, the case of a tattoo artist named Ernesto Rodriguez. In 2013, Rodriguez came under fire from animal rights organizations after he intricately inked the tummies of his two pit bulls "just in case anything happens to them."

But, c'mon, y'all... let's be real. If you were simply tattooing your dog for identification's sake, surely you could find a less excessive way to do so. I have one tattoo. It took half an hour, and it hurt like hell. True story. My design isn't even complicated, so I can't imagine how long or how uncomfortable a tattoo like the one Rodriguez's dogs endured must have been.

Still, Rodriguez had his supporters — as did Brooklyn tattoo artist Mistah Metro, another high-profile and controversial example of a tattooist inking their pet.

In Metro's case, his dog had to go into the vet to have her spleen removed, at which time the vet allowed Metro to tattoo a classic tattoo-style heart with arrow on the dog's shoulder area. After bragging on Instagram his "dog is cooler than yours," he received major backlash.

And this time, the ASPCA and PETA piped up about the impropriety of elaborate tattoos on dogs.

"The tattooing of an animal for the selfish joy and entertainment of its owner — without any regard for the well-being of the animal — is not something the ASPCA supports. The incident in question is not at all comparable to the practice of leaving a small mark on an animal for identification purposes following spay or neuter surgery," insisted Aimee Christian, then-vice president of spay/neuter operations at the ASPCA. "This tagging procedure, performed by a licensed veterinarian or veterinary technician while the animal is under anesthesia, helps animal welfare professionals clearly identify animals that have been altered, preventing unnecessary future surgeries."

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The director of PETA's Emergency Response Team, Martin Mersereau, weighed in as well, saying, "PETA is opposed to cosmetic procedures on animals. Even though the dog was supposedly anesthetized while receiving the tattoo, this procedure was still unnecessary and painful, and it could lead to complications that endanger his or her health. Our dogs and cats love us, regardless of how we look. We should extend the same kindness to them."

In fact, Metro's case led to laws in both New York and New Jersey stating it is a crime to tattoo or pierce your companion animal — with exceptions being made for markings done by veterinarians or rescue organizations for medical or identification purposes.

Even then, the law states showy tattoos are expressly prohibited and should only include numbers, letters or the small lines used to signify spaying or neutering.

Of course, this opens that whole proverbial can of worms that comes with any controversy: Who gets to call the shots? Who gets to decide how much inking is inhumane for a dog? Doesn't it stand to reason that if a big tattoo is painful that a small one would be too? Not as much, maybe, but that's no real consolation to the dog being tatted.

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If rescue organizations and veterinarians continue to tattoo dogs, it creates a gray area for people to feel justified in tattooing their companion pets as well. While those rescue groups and veterinarians clearly have solid reasons for doing so, it's a bit of a slippery slope.

Regardless, the takeaway for the average pet owner is just don't. If you get the urge for some doggy-inspired ink, hit up your local tattoo parlor and get your pup imprinted on your own arm.

Now that would be a serious show of puppy love.

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