Eye Scans For Spies...and Horses?

The eyeD scanning system is the newest, most efficient way to go about equine identification.


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Just as no two fingerprints are alike, no two irises of the eye are the same, not the right and left eye or even in a clone.

The characteristics of connective tissue, cilia, contraction furrows, crypts, rings and corona are different enough to distinguish one iris from another, creating colors, textures and patterns that are never exactly alike in any human or animal.

Calculating algorithms for the biometrics of the human iris first began in 1987. For dogs and horses, research began about 10 years ago, with equipment for iris scanning for identification purposes hitting the market starting about four years ago.  

Rochen C. Heers, DVM, believes that iris scanning will be the preferred form of equine identification in the near future.

Dr. Heers will tell you: Iris recognition for biometric identification is not just speculative technology from spy films–it is being used now in horse barns, racetracks and veterinary hospitals across the country.

As owner of Red Rock Equine Dentistry in Las Vegas, Nev., Heers encourages her clients to have their horses scanned for record-keeping and disaster preparation. She uses the eyeD, an equine identification system based on a digital infrared photo of the horse’s iris developed by Merck Animal Health of Summit, N.J.

“The iris scans are always accurate,” Heers says. “And this non-invasive form of equine identification will be a welcome change in terms of safety to operators and comfort level of the horses. The eyeD is a great replacement to more invasive identification measures such as lip tattooing, freeze branding and microchipping.”

She figures it will take awhile to get the industry to adopt iris scanning as its preferred method. She says she is scanning as many horses as she can, and talking to as many owners as possible about the importance of equine identification.

By creating a digital infrared photo of the horse’s iris, the eyeD creates the most accurate form of identification on the market today, says Michael Coe, DVM, Ph.D., technical and strategic services manager for Merck Animal Health.

Dr. Coe says iris scanning is quickly becoming the standard of positive equine identification.

He notes that the process is being used for providing accurate and tamperproof identification of sale horses and efficient check-in processes at horse shows. Scanning will also aid in the recovery of lost or stolen horses.

He says a bonus is the system’s compatibility with practice management software.

“Veterinary hospitals are achieving increased efficiency through eyeD’s camera and software integrations with their practice management software,” Coe says.

“So not only will the system identify and verify patients, it will accurately track and record patient care, increase service to clients and provide more efficiency in tracking records and health certificates.”

The eyeD scanner, similar to a digital camera, is held about a foot from each of the horse’s eyes. Infrared illumination creates a biometric image of the iris. The procedure subjects the horse’s eye to about the same amount of light that it would be exposed to on a sunny day.

The camera also includes a computer that records pertinent information about the horse. Through eyeSync software installed on the practitioner’s computer or laptop, scans and other information are then synced to the eyeD processor, which creates a 15-digit alphanumeric code for that animal.

Coe says the code is generated by the national database and sent back to the local database. The code is associated with the eyePrint. Once an owner pays a $50 fee to enroll a horse in the program, the owner information is sent to the national database.

The information is electronically stored, safely and permanently, Coe says, along with such patient records as Coggins tests, health certificates and pedigree registrations. The information is accessed only through a highly secure password-protected processor, and may be retrieved 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When identification is necessary, another scan can be taken and compared with the original for accurate identification.

The scanner is simple to use and its operating cost is no more than a regular digital camera and laptop, Coe says.

Merck’s system has been in development for more than 10 years and has been on the market since November 2011. It is the only equine iris scanner. “We chose equine from a business perspective,” he says, “and the fact that the equine eye is very well suited for the technology.”

The eyeD is priced around $3,000. 

Among iris scanning’s advantages are a low risk of contamination, unlike with a tattoo or microchip procedure, and the completed scans are permanent and virtually tamperproof.

Heers points out that the horse must not be sedated before scanning because a dilated pupil would give an unmatchable reading. Horses must be at least a year old, so their eyes have stopped developing and changing.

Iris scanning is becoming popular among breed associations, commercial barns and stables, racing barns and equine practitioners to identify their horses.

“The system is useful for managers and practitioners alike in breeding and commercial barns to make absolutely sure that the correct work is being done on the correct horse,” Heers says. “Verifying the horse’s identity is simple and accurate. The system helps tremendously in preventing liability and legal issues.”

Identification becomes vital in the event of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or wildfire where horses are suddenly and drastically separated from their owners and managers.

Heers says Merck teams have pledged to assist with scanning and matching to help reunite nationally registered horses with owners after disasters.

She points out that if equine slaughterhouses are ever reopened in the United States, iris scanning would be an accurate method of preventing the wrong horse from being harmed. Merck currently has endowed Canadian slaughterhouses with the capability to scan horses to prevent misidentification, she says.

Veterinarians might include the service in their wellness programs as part of the yearly plan of the highest service, says Coe.

Heers offers iris scanning as a complimentary service while she is at a farm or ranch, administering a vaccine or performing dental work. It gives her an opportunity to explain the technology and benefits of the scan, as well as encourage her clients to register their horses in the national registry.

She uses eyeD as a marketing tool as well, talking with equine groups, most recently the Las Vegas Mounted Search and Rescue. Members not only want their horses’ eyes scanned but, “as long as she is there,” are reminded that they need appointments for dental work, vaccinations and other routine health care.

Merck Offers Owners an Early Adopter Program

To help veterinarians encourage their clients to enroll their horses in the national registry, Merck Animal Health is offering the eyeD Futurity Club, an early adopter program.

The first 125,000 horses enrolled will receive a 95 percent discount on yearly renewal and all future services.

“Veterinarians need to encourage horse owners that this is the future and to take advantage of the savings today before the technology is commonplace,” says David Knupp, marketing manager for Merck Animal Health of Summit, N.J.

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