Ten More Reasons Why Our Pets’ Microchip System Needs Fixing (Part 2)

In case I wasn’t 100% clear about this point in my first post in this series, let me repeat it: Microchips are an indispensable part of any pet owner’s safety protocol. Time and again, studies have confirmed that ID tags alone are not enough. An indelible mark of ownership is often required to reunite non-speaking family members with their human counterparts. And microchip technology has thus far offered the best solution to this problem. 

 Slumdog's broken leg, circa 2010.

Slumdog's broken leg, circa 2010.

Regrettably, however, microchips are far from perfect. As I described in detail in Part 1, the labyrinthine commercial landscape, rife with competing technologies, resulted in an epidemic of identification failures. Untold numbers of lost microchipped pets were “missed” by veterinarians and shelters when microchip companies competed by forcing vets and shelters to choose between incompatible technologies. 

Some science

Indeed, of lost pets with microchips, one study found that only 13% made it back home again. Which is pretty sad. But there is good news:

In another study (by the same authors), almost three-fourths of 7,700 microchipped stray pets who entered 51 universal scanner-wielding shelters were ultimately reunited with their owners. In other words, if microchipped pets made it to a progressive shelter, they had a five-fold higher rate of return than when lost in a scanner-less sea.

Great study! But what happened to the 25% of microchipped pets who didn’t make it back home again?

  1. When the shelter looked up the microchip number in a database, the number hadn’t been registered to an individual or entity. The microchip manufacturer could only tell the shelter to whom it had sold the lot of microchips (often to a distributor but sometimes to a chain of pet stores or some other such entity).
  2. Sometimes the microchip number was registered, but not to an individual. In these cases, the microchip was registered to the veterinary hospital, shelter, pet store or breeder that implanted it. In some cases the entity will keep records that will identify the individual owner. In most cases, however, they don’t.
  3. In many cases, incomplete or outdated information was associated with their registration. Letters, emails and telephone calls went unanswered. These pet owners had likely not updated their pet’s microchip information when they’d moved or changed their telephone numbers. 

Three simple conclusions

These findings speak to two specific conclusions reached by the studies’ authors: 

  1. Microchips work. Without them, more than 5,000 of these 7,700 animals would not have made it home again.
  2. You have to register the thing with your information (and be sure to keep it updated!). 
  3. Registration isn’t always so straightforward. In fact, now that we’re seeing a unification and universalization of the actual hardware technology (a good thing for pets), the data management bit has unexpectedly become more complicated. 

The new microchip wars

Unfortunately, universalizing microchip technology hasn’t been enough to reform the system. Here’s why:

A 2008 law mandated universality in microchip and scanner technology. Which was a really, really good thing. Unfortunately, this law said nothing about how the microchip companies were supposed to manage microchipped pets’ data. That’s why registration and data management became the new front on which the microchip wars were fought. 

Once the profitability on the actual hardware (microchips and scanners) was reduced via increased competition, companies had to rely on the registration to make up the difference. Which makes sense. Nothing nefarious about that. Everyone deserves their slice. 

Unfortunately, this turned the microchip registration process (the up-front sign-up and back-end data management) into an unwieldy monster, rife with its own set of competition-thwarting incompatibilities, secrets and convolutions. 

It was predictable, really. Yet so much of our attention with respect to microchipping had been directed towards choosing and managing the actual technology –– microchips and scanners –– that we’d paid little to the back end of the system. None of us was prepared for how best to handle these ten pitfalls:

#1 You have a baffling choice in registration services.

As if the variety in microchip technology wasn't confusing enough … you also have a bewildering choice in how you elect to register your microchip. Here’s the deal:

Once you adopt a pet, purchase one, or have a microchip implanted by a veterinarian, you’re always offered information about registering your pet’s microchip (usually in a folder with lots of pages inserted into its flimsy pockets). This usually comes in an online or printed form you’re asked to fill out. And, so you know, a fee is typically associated with this process.

In most cases, this registration service will correspond to the brand of microchip your pet has had implanted. In other words, if your pet has a HomeAgain microchip, a finder’s assumption would likely be that she’s registered with the HomeAgain folks. And if she has an AVID microchip, they’ll assume she's been registered on AVID’s registry. 

But that’s not necessarily the case at all. Any registry will accept your pet’s digits.

#2 Your microchip brand doesn't have to correspond to the registration service.

Here’s the thing: There are plenty of registration services, not just the one that corresponds to your pet’s microchip. Which means you can have your pet microchipped with one brand of microchip and registered by any registration service –– not necessarily the one run by your pet’s brand of microchip. 

Which begs the question: Is there a difference in registration services? Are some better than others? 

Almost certainly. Some work harder to pair owners with lost pets. Others don’t share microchip data with as many databases as others do (which can add time-consuming steps in the reunion process or keep pets lost forever). Some cost more than others. Still others bombard you with sales-y spam or try to lure you into paying unnecessary fees.

#3 Some companies mislead you into paying annually for registration.

Know this: You only have to register it once. That’s it. But that doesn’t mean your microchip registration service won’t keep trying to up-sell you on their other services –– sometimes allowing you to mistakenly believe you’ve got to keep paying to remain registered. 

Here’s the deal: When you register your microchip with one of the bigger companies you’ll be asked to surrender a fee for the privilege. In addition, many microchip registration companies charge an annual fee for services related to your pets’ lost and found status. These may include lost pet alerts (sent to neighboring shelters and veterinary facilities), assistance from “trained lost pet specialists,” and niceties like unlimited free access to poison control services (a $50 value per incident). 

These are great perks. Some are perks that might even help get your pet home again. But that’s what you’re paying for. Extras. With your initial account setup and registration fee, you’ve accomplished what those who don’t read fine print will assume they’re paying to maintain. 

Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that the annual fee has a way of adding an unnecessary layer of confusion to the system, leading owners to mistakenly assume their pet’s microchip is useless unless they pay up. If they want to sell these items, that’s great. But it’s my take that companies need to more clearly convey that these valuable items are offered independent of registration. 

#4 Because registration doesn’t necessarily cost anything … but there’s a catch.

Then there’s the kind of registration service that will make you an offer you can’t refuse … free registration. Yes, there are several free microchip registries out there. They promise to forever keep your pet’s information paired with yours. All you have to do is Google “free microchip registry.” 

OK so what’s the catch? 

The catch, as I see it, is not that these companies might use your registration information for nefarious ends. Rather, the problem is that the microchip registration system is fragmented into so many different players that, should you choose a tiny registry that goes poof! at some point, its data might languish inaccessibly in its own lonely place on the internet.

Does that confuse you? It probably should. After all, here’s where the registration system starts to get impenetrably opaque …

#5 There is no universal database.

If someone finds a microchipped pet in the UK, they check a universal database that tells them who the pet is registered with. The finder can then contact this registration service. But if someone finds a microchipped pet in the US, they can contact one of any number of microchip brand-owned databases that might contain the pet’s information. There is no one universal database. 

This is a huge problem that unnecessarily impedes reunions here in the US. It happens primarily because companies don’t always want to share data.

This industry has shown time and again that it doesn’t play well with others within its own ranks. In a continuation of this tradition, microchip companies may hoard their registration data. After all, the only thing that differentiates their product from any other’s, nowadays, is their registration service. Which is why many of them do not want to contribute their data to a unified database. 

A couple of years ago, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) tried to find a way around this. They came up with an independent online Microchip Lookup tool so that everyone could incorporate their data into a universal system. Though it works great (I use it all the time), it doesn’t yet include every company’s data. AVID is the lone holdout. It seems AVID continues to care more about its bottom line than the pets it registers.  

#6 “Unregistered” animals aren’t necessarily unregistered –– even though a microchip company might tell you so.

Just because a pet doesn’t come up as registered in a certain database doesn’t mean she isn’t registered. This is something I learned only very recently (it was the inspiration for this series, actually). Here’s what I learned:

Remember when I said that finders will assume AVID ‘chipped pets will be on AVID’s registry and HomeAgain on HomeAgain’s? Unfortunately, if you find a pet with a HomeAgain microchip that’s registered on AVID’s database, HomeAgain will tell you it’s not registered. And vice-versa. And neither, as I learned from calling them to check on one particular patient, will refer you to AAHA’s online Microchip Lookup tool. Nice, right?

What they’re trying to do here is make sure that no one ever cross-registers. They want you to fear cross-registration because it’s dangerous (the same way they once wanted you to fear getting another brand’s chip because it wouldn’t match your shelter’s scanners). When the truth is that they’re the ones responsible for that danger –– unethically and immorally, I might add.

The good news here is that AAHA’s tool will usually help you ID the pet (unless the pet is registered with AVID). The bad news is that you have to know enough to ignore microchip company representatives who erroneously inform you that your found pet is unregistered with them and therefore unidentifiable. They suck!

#7 The registration is separated from the implantation process.

The United States is the only country in which the implantation of a microchip is treated as a separate process from registration. In other countries (including Canada, Australia and throughout the EU and Asia), these services are always bundled together.

Bundling is great because it means that the initial registration process isn’t left up to the owner. This is not to say that the owner isn’t capable, rather that owners (especially first-time owners) are often so overwhelmed that they don’t fully understand the importance of this step … so they tend to skip it.

What’s more, owners often aren’t well-informed about how to complete the registration process.

Animal shelters, veterinarians, breeders, rescues and pet stores who implant microchips but leave the registration process up to the owner are often guilty of failing to impress upon owners the critical nature of this process. Even when they do, they don’t usually go the extra mile to explain how it’s done and follow up to be sure pets ultimately got registered. 

This is especially true of internet breeders and pet shops, both of which could care less what happens to these pets once your payment clears. But shelters, overwhelmed as they are, are often extra-guilty of this too. (At least they have an excuse!)

#8 Microchip implanters don’t necessarily keep good records.

If you get your pet from a responsible breeder, a well-run rescue or a veterinary hospital, you’ll have a much better chance of being reunited with your lost pet, even if you never register the microchip. That’s because most microchip companies will keep track of where small lots of microchips went (vet hospitals, small breeders, etc). And if that entity keeps good records, pairing microchip numbers with their clients, even unregistered pets can ultimately be identified. 

Unfortunately, most implanting entities don’t keep good records. Pet shops go out of business frequently, internet shops are fly-by-night affairs, and shelters are to big and busy to make record-keeping practical.

#9 Veterinarians and shelters don’t always check for microchips.

Given that microchips are ubiquitous, no shelter or veterinary facility has any excuse for failing to keep up with the latest technology. And that means scanning every new patient in the correct manner and keeping a universal microchip reader on hand. But unfortunately, not all vets and shelters keep up with the latest practices and technology. 

Sadly, cats are especially neglected in this regard. Which is one more reason why cat owners would do well to keep their pets indoors, otherwise contained, or tagged whenever possible. 

Oh, and one more thing: You can help your veterinarian keep good microchip habits by having your pet’s microchip checked every year to be sure it’s still doing its thing. If every pet owner asked, every veterinarian would have a scanner handy in every exam room for every annual visit. 

#10 The microchip is a highly imperfect legal record.

Most pet owners assume that microchipping their pets constitutes proof of ownership. Unfortunately, it does not. Though it’s helpful, it’s not solid evidence. After all, proof of ownership is not required for registration. 

Consider this example: What would happen to my pug-mix Slumdog if, years after finding him on the street and being unable to tie his microchip to an owner, the original owner finally decided to register his microchip? In so doing, they might learn of his new registered owner –– me. Would he legally belong to them? Though courts usually side with original owners, they also tend to rule in favor of emotional investment. I’m confident I would win. But, depending on the circumstances, it might not be not easy. 

Then there’s the issue of the veterinarian’s role in potential ownership disputes. What am I supposed to do when I see a new patient with a microchip the owner clearly didn’t know was there? Luckily, the AVMA has stepped in and made things easier for me:

In 2008, the AVMA adopted recommendations from a special task force to guide veterinarians in scanning patients for microchips prior to treatment. The guidelines state that if a microchip is detected that the client didn’t know was there, the veterinarian can only give the client the microchip information and encourage the client to contact the appropriate database(s). 

In fact, in cases like these, it’s not yet clear whether or not reporting a microchipped dog breaches veterinary-client confidentiality. Ironically, the law is also unclear about whether a veterinarian has an obligation to contact the former owners. Damned if you do …

***

OK so there you have it: Ten reasons why the information contained in your microchip might not be all you thought it was. For a total of sixteen reasons why the microchip system is not what it should be. 

Thankfully, however, there are ways to a) mitigate the risks this system poses and b) improve it, all without playing into the hands of those responsible for its problems in the first place.

#1 Bundle registration with implantation.

Veterinarians should do this more often. Our hospital has been doing this for a few years now and our clients are really happy with how this works. 

#2 Choose a company that shares its data.

All these companies share with the AAHA Microchip Lookup database. Pick one. Skip all others.

#3 Register with more than one registry.

Got an AVID microchip? Register it with more than one company. And remember, you don’t have to spend any money to do it. (All my pets are registered free with Found Animals as either a primary or secondary source. It shares well with AAHA’s database.)

#4 Veterinarians should implement microchip checks annually. 

Every veterinarian should ideally check your pet’s ‘chip annually. At the same time, we should ask about its registration and whether you’ve updated your info (if necessary). Ideally, we’d show you how it’s done right there and then.  

#5 Ostracize companies who don’t play nice.

I’d love nothing better. Unfortunately, AVID’s not going out of business anytime soon. Too many veterinarians and shelters are in the dark about their underhanded practices. Or they just don’t care. 

Either way, I’m not holding my breath. I will, however, keep writing about how to make microchips a more reliable system. Because as I keep saying, microchips may not be perfect … but they’re the best we’ve got. As such, I would never let my pets go without. And you shouldn’t either.

 

-Dr. Patty Khuly