16 Reasons Why the US Microchip System Is Broken (and How Our Pets Suffer For It) Part 1

All my pets are microchipped. As a veterinarian, it would be unthinkable for me to deprive my pets of this extra measure of security. But I also believe, just as devoutly, that the US microchip system is now and has always been, by design, a broken thing –– a bedraggled and limping hydra crafted to benefit its many squabbling corporate heads more than the pets it claims to serve. 

Mirror, mirror ... will my microchip see me home again?

Mirror, mirror ... will my microchip see me home again?

By now, almost every seasoned pet owner knows about microchips. At least they think they do. But unless you deal with microchips on a regular basis (and even if you do!), you might be surprised by the dirty little secrets harbored by those who make that little bit of identifying hardware hidden under your pet’s skin.

The truth is disgusting, really. If our human children relied on such an insecure system of identification, the media would’ve long ago cracked skulls and taken names. After the first lost child failed to make it home, after it became irrefutably, unambiguously manifest that the system was built to foster gaping cracks where systemic inaccuracies festered and lost pets languished –– but profits flourished –– it should’ve been an easy takedown. 

But it hasn’t been. The cracked and splintered but shockingly rapacious US microchip industry has gotten its way, time after time, all in the name of free market competition. This, despite attempts by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), World Small Animal Veterinary Medical Association (WSAVA), and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), among others, to quietly rein in its greed and help reform its pet-sacrificing practices.

All of this may come as something of a surprise to you. Indeed, if you’re like most pet owners (or even veterinarians) you probably assume microchip manufacturers reside within a starry constellation of animal angels who care for nothing but reuniting pets with their people. But that’s simply not so –– not in the US, anyway. 

Think I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know? You’re probably wrong. (I learned way more than I thought I would while writing this.) Now, what follows is a long, slightly strange story that requires some patience. But it’s important. What’s more, you won’t find it told anywhere else.

So fasten your seatbelts …

First up, the basics

Microchips are identification devices typically implanted between your dog or cat’s shoulder blades via hypodermic needle (no anesthesia necessary!). These tiny bioglass and polymer-coated cylinders work using radio frequency technology to safely and permanently connect your pets to information that will help them find their way home again (should ID tags fail) or, less commonly, to help resolve ownership disputes. 

Your pet’s originating rescue, breeder or shelter will typically implant a microchip when you adopt or purchase your pet. If they haven't already implanted one, or if your pet is an off-the-street foundling, your veterinarian will usually scan your pet and offer to implant one when you come in for your first vet visit.

Microchips are not GPS devices that can be used to track your pet’s location like a Lojack® can, nor does it contain all of your information in its tiny “brain.” Instead, a microchip contains a series of numbers specific to your pet. Though safely hidden under the skin, these can be detected easily, but only when activated by a device (called a microchip “scanner” or “reader”). Best of all, a microchip will never go bad. It needs no batteries and never needs to be replaced.

Unfortunately, however, getting one implanted by a veterinarian and scanned when she’s lost isn’t enough to reunite you. The numbers encoded by the microchip become specific to your pet only when you register it. The simple but oft-overlooked microchip registration process permanently ties your pet’s physical microchip to your personal information (name, telephone number, emergency contacts, etc.). 

Once registered, whenever a pet is scanned by a device designed to detect the presence of a microchip (used routinely by almost all shelters and veterinary establishments in the US), the finder will be able to access the pet’s owner via a third-party service that maintains a database of pet microchip numbers and their corresponding owners’ digits. 

There are four parts to this system. They include …

1) The microchip: This is the device that’s implanted under your pet’s skin. Each one is built with a unique series of numbers encoded on it. They’re manufactured by microchip manufacturers, typically distributed by a veterinary supply company, and retailed by veterinarians, shelters, rescues and breeders to the general public.

2) The scanner: Whenever a pet is found by a veterinarian or shelter, they are scanned for the presence of a microchip with a scanner. This is the tool that’s required to read the unique numbers on each microchip. When activated by a scanner’s radio frequency signal, it transmits these numbers to the scanner’s display.

3) The registry: Microchip companies offer registration of their microchips via a registry service they maintain. Microchip companies typically charge an extra fee for this service. In some cases this fee may be included in the price of the microchip itself. Other entities (animal welfare not-for-profit organizations, for example) may also register microchips. 

4) The database: Whenever a pet is found, the finder (always via a shelter or veterinarian) has to correctly pair the lost pet’s microchip number with a pet owner’s registered information. These pairings are kept within microchip databases. Every microchip registration service maintains its own database. In some cases, these services will share their database with other organizations to form larger databases designed to help increase the possibility of finding a match.

OK so that’s the “simple” skinny on microchips. Here’s where it starts to get tricky. In fact, it starts to get so convoluted that I’ve organized them into 16 reasons why the US microchip system is broken:

#1 Because you have a choice in microchip technology.

Choice would seem to be a good thing. So would competition. But when there’s too much competition you can get too much choice. In the US, competition among microchip manufacturers has led to a confusing array of competing technologies, so much so that it’s undercut confidence in the market and stifled the adoption of microchip technology. 

Here’s the back story:

There are currently three kinds of microchips on the market. They differ by frequency: 125 kHz, 128 kHz, and 134.2 kHz. Back in 1996, at the inception of this industry, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia agreed upon one common standard for identifying animals. This was the 134.2 kHz version of the microchip, also called the ISO standard microchip. 

Though the American National Standards Institute agreed back then (and again in 2001 and 2006) that the ISO standard should reign for the sake of the animals and the industry, US microchip manufacturers, led by the first major pet microchip company (AVID) and next runner-up (HomeAgain), bullheadedly refused. Instead, these veterinarian-piloted companies pursued their own technology, the 125 kHz microchip.  

As a direct result of technological differences, uncounted pets’ microchips were missed when scanned. In a few cases, owners learned, incontrovertibly, that their pets had met their end in shelters. Some civil lawsuits resulted. In the vast majority of instances, however, the tragedy went undiscovered or undisclosed. These pets simply never made it home again. 

#2 Because some companies played dirty. 

As the first mover in a fledgling industry, the AVID microchip gained traction in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Once it had established this foothold in the industry, it thwarted competition in an unprecedented way: AVID encrypted its microchip information so that only facilities with an AVID scanner could detect the microchip under the pet’s skin and decode the microchip. (Early on, most veterinarians and shelters only kept one scanner on hand.)

By refusing to allow its equipment to read other microchips, AVID callously allowed countless animals to effectively remain “lost.” 

But AVID didn’t see it that way. Its take was that its technology was first and best. It had spent the money to lay the groundwork for the industry. It was the victor. It deserved the spoils. In fact, in AVID’s estimation (confirmed by my personal conversations with AVID employees), its competitors were responsible for any lost pets. 

Though this business practice was widely regarded by in-the-know veterinarians as both unethical and immoral, it was the antitrust aspect that earned AVID a lawsuit. One ISO-compatible microchip distributer eventually filed a lawsuit against AVID, claiming its tactics violated US antitrust laws. In 2006, legislation was finally enacted with the intention of ending this confusion once and for all. 

While the legislation required the USDA “to develop the appropriate regulations that allow for universal reading ability and best serve the interests of pet owners,” it couldn’t force the microchip companies to play nice. 

#3 Because scanners are imperfect –– technologically and politically. 

As the result of this landmark legislation, most modern scanners can now detect all three microchip frequencies currently on the market. Trouble is, not all veterinarians and shelters use these so-called “universal” scanners. Which is mostly because scanners have the dubious distinction of living longer than our pets do. So why get a new one?

In my experience, plenty of veterinarians don’t even know their scanner isn’t a universal scanner … or that their scanner isn’t a particularly good one. Because while most scanners are pretty great at reading their own microchips, they’re not always so good at reading others.’ 

According to research included on the AVMA’s website, some scanners are way better than others. In fact, some companies’ universal scanners do a particularly poor job. In fact, one of the AKC brand “universal” scanners has only a 53.5% chance of detecting some microchips. This, according to a 2008 JAVMA study.

The irony is that, according to this same study, most universal scanners seem to be better at detecting and reading ISO microchips than any other kind. 

#4 Because the US microchip industry is based on a fundamentally different philosophy than the rest of the world’s.

Throughout the rest of the world, the ISO microchip standard reigns. The world around, microchipping is perceived primarily as a public good, not a moneymaking venture. Elsewhere, managing pet overpopulation and promoting public health trump a small industry’s shortsighted cupidity.  

Indeed, nowhere outside the US does any entity interfere with the ability of a microchip to be accurately detected or a scanner to perform its dedicated function. Nor is information hidden at the expense of pets’ lives or fingers pointed at competitors when microchipped animals are mistakenly “euthanized.” 

#5 Because, almost a decade later, there’s still no standard among American microchips.

Remember the old Betamax players? They no longer exist. VHS eventually beat them out. US microchip companies are Betamax. They know pets are falling through the cracks because of this technological mismatch, yet they stubbornly stand by their technology nonetheless.

To this day, US microchip manufacturers pigheadedly refuse to agree upon one American standard. This, despite the fact that every major animal welfare organization has pleaded with the industry to adopt the global standard.

Indeed, even the notoriously industry-protecting AVMA included this statement on its website: “The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), World Small Animal Veterinary Medical Association (WSAVA), and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) endorse the use of electronic identification in animals and support the implementation of ISO standard 11784/11785 in the U.S.”

Yes, even the über-conservative AVMA endorses change, lending its support to the international standard (ISO) microchip. It is, after all, what’s best for pets.

#6 Because traveling internationally with pets requires an ISO microchip.

Here’s the deal: Because modern international travel often requires incontrovertible identification, microchipping is typically required (more so for Europe, Asia and Australia than for Africa and South America). Because the global standard is the ISO microchip, every microchip-requiring country except the US demands it. 

Which means your US microchipped pet will almost certainly need to be microchipped with an ISO microchip before you travel … even if it means being microchipped twice.

Two microchips … seriously? 

I implant additional microchips in pets all the time. Because I live and practice in Miami, where plenty of people travel to Europe regularly, I have to do this fairly often. Clearly this system is broken if I have to keep two kinds of microchips in my arsenal at all times.

One final story for Part 1 of this post:

One of my dogs, a Dutch-imported Belgian malinois, has two microchips. One is an ISO, implanted in the Netherlands by Tika’s military kennel, and the other is a 125 kHz 24PetWatch, implanted by the dog breeder who brought her to the US a few years ago. 

You’d think I’d feel pretty safe, seeing as she’s been microchipped so thoroughly. Unfortunately, the fact of Tika’s two microchips raises even more uncomfortable issues: What would happen if she were lost? Which microchip would they find? 

Check my chip? Pick one ... 

Check my chip? Pick one ... 

Whether we're talking about one microchip or two, clearly this is not the way any sane, secure system of identification should work. What's worse, microchip technology is only half the battle. The other half has to do with much more mundane stuff: the politics of getting her back home again. But, as it turns out, that bit is even more blurry, befuddling and bone-chilling than the actual microchipping bit. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 in next week’s installment of the Dolittler blog. 

-Dr. Patty Khuly