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Shopping for kitty or puppy? Consider pierced earrings -- or a tattoo

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A kitten seized from a Pennsylvania grooming parlor was pierced through the ears, neck and tail in an attempt to sell it as "gothic." (Photo courtesy of Luzerne County)

The eBay ad showed a fuzzy black kitten whose head drooped, its tiny ears folded under the weight of two heavy-gauge barbells. The bidding price included a decorative submission lead for attachment to a ring puncturing the kitten’s neck.

The seller, Holly Crawford, who operated a Pennsylvania dog-grooming business, pierced three kittens through their ears and necks before listing them as “gothic kittens,” asking for hundreds of dollars apiece. One kitten’s tail was crudely docked with a castration band then pierced through the nub, according to police. Crawford, 34, faces three misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty, and if found guilty, possible prison time.

“If you see these kittens, they were hurt pretty badly,” says Dave Pedri, deputy district attorney of Luzerne County, adding that the jewelry was removed at an emergency clinic the night of the December raid. “There were infections. They weren’t well cared for.”

Crawford is not the first to seek edgy body modifications for pets, but her case brings to light a fringe practice that pits its critics against its defenders. A small but resolute group of animal modifiers say there’s no harm in giving pets their own unique style.

“Closed-minded people tend to think it’s OK to have a computer chip in an animal but not a piece of art,” says Chris Krahn, a tattoo artist in Boise, Idaho, who has inked two of his dogs.

Opponents condemn the practice as animal cruelty, saying unnecessary mutilation has little to do with traditional veterinary procedures.

To be sure, people have tagged and branded cattle and docked the ears and tails of dogs for years. Microchipping, spaying and neutering pets are encouraged as humane measures for safety and health. Until recently, tattoos were used for identification purposes and to indicate that an animal had been spayed.

Veterinarians in the South will tattoo the faces of white cats, dogs and horses that spend a lot of time in the sun and are susceptible to cancerous lesions. Docking dogs’ tails is falling out of fashion, but it can prevent painful tail fractures in certain breeds.

Some pet owners, however, are taking the age-old idea of animal body modification several steps further in the name of art. BMEzine.com, an online body-modification magazine, posts dozens of pictures of pets: a cat “pierced like its owner” through the ears; dogs whose bellies are scarred with elaborate tattoos, their ears weighted with hoops and barbells; even pierced fish and rats.

Krahn tattooed one of the dogs pictured on the Web site. He inked a small Hello Kitty face on the belly of his Jack Russell terrier and two diamonds on his Boston terrier, both while they were under anesthesia to be spayed at a veterinary office.

The tattooed flesh healed faster than the surgical incisions, Krahn says. Friends have requested his services for their dogs, but he insists on doing it under proper conditions and has had trouble finding veterinarians who will work with him.

“Most people think it’s really cool,” Krahn says. “The few people who had a problem with it were fine once I explained everything.”

Pet owners after this peculiar brand of cool can be found all over the country—as can indignant animal lovers. A pet store in Bossier City, La., offered canine ear piercings for a brief time in 2007, but animal-rights groups were quick to put an end to the service.

“We put an ad on TV, and we were bombarded with people who wanted their dogs’ ears pierced,” says Critter Company employee Lisa Thorne. “We only got to do it a couple weeks, to five or six dogs, before it got ugly. But we still get customers coming in to ask for it.”

Thorne says the store pierced mostly small designer dogs, who received small studs in their ears after being treated with a numbing agent.

“Little dogs just sit in your lap all day,” she says. “With big working dogs, it wouldn’t make sense. They’d get them torn out.”

Susan Ryan, a veterinarian in Brooklyn, N.Y., who does not advocate pet piercing, once treated a Boston terrier with a diamond stud in its ear.

“The owner thought it was a cool thing because he had one,” Ryan says. “It’s for show-off appeal.”

A dubious appeal, she says, not worth the certain risks, which include infection, getting caught and torn out and hurting another dog or a child in play.

“Some people would see a piercing and think, ‘Hey, that’s not cute,’ ” Ryan says. “You might get a lot of negative attention walking that dog.”

Ryan also points out that tattooing, even in a veterinary office, is dangerous because an animal or person should not be kept under anesthesia for longer than medically necessary.

Kristin Dejournett, a cruelty caseworker with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who fielded the Crawford tip, says the organization is against all cosmetic body modifications for animals. Most states, including Pennsylvania, have laws against causing animals unnecessary pain and suffering.

“A silly cosmetic procedure to a pet is ridiculous and unnecessary,” Dejournett says. “Pets don’t understand why you’re hurting them.”

E-mail: ksh2119@columbia.edu