Microchipping: Safety Net for Pets

If you are like most adoring pet owners, you sometimes wonder what you would do if your dog or cat got lost. It is one of your worst nightmares, picturing your pet out in the woods or lost in a busy city, far from home. Even if your animal is picked up somewhere, how would anyone be able to know that you are the rightful owner? Imagine if there was a magic wand that could be waved over your lost pet that would match you up with your animal and have it returned home within hours. There happens to be such a device, although it relies more on computer technology than magic.
  • identification
  • lost pets
  • technology
  • veterinary care
AKC-CAR in December 2003

Through the Companion Animal Recover (CAR) program at the American Kennel Club, dogs and cats, as well as numerous other creatures, have a small microchip embedded beneath their skin containing a unique identification number. This number is stored in a national database maintained by the AKC. Any time a lost pet ends up at a veterinarian’s office, the staff can check the animal with a scanning device similar to the one used at department stores for reading barcodes. If the animal has a microchip, it is a simple matter for the vet to refer to the national database, contact the registered owners, and reunite the pet with the owner. Since its inception in 1995, the AKC-CAR program has enrolled over one and a half million animals in its microchipping effort, and it has successfully reunited nearly 150,000 pets with their owners.

How the Program Works

At the heart of the CAR program is the Home Again microchip, manufactured by Destron Fearing Corporation, which is about the size of a small grain of rice. The chip is injected into the animal using a syringe that is a bit larger than the ones used for routine vaccinations. It may seem a little scary to have a microchip implanted in your animal. But vets who do the procedure describe it as simple and non-invasive. As proof of this, vets very often have their own dogs or cats microchipped. “I did my own dog while he was awake, and he didn’t even flinch,” says Pat Ornberg at the Eastwood Animal Clinic in El Paso, Texas. Dr. April Bufton, at the CARE Animal Hospital, located outside Chicago, says that injecting a microchip “is really just like any other shot a dog or cat might get” during a veterinary visit. The entire injection procedure takes about one minute, and it only needs to be done once to give your animal a permanent identification. Dr. Lourdes Garden, at the Ramapo Valley Animal Hospital in Oakland, New Jersey, says “I have never had problems with pain or anything like that.” For scheduling reasons, vets suggest that animals receive a microchip when they come in to be spayed or neutered.

Registering the animal takes much longer than the microchip procedure itself. After animals are given a microchip, the owners are asked to fill out some forms, which are then sent to Destron Fearing and to the AKC-CAR offices in North Carolina. To help expedite local animal recoveries, many veterinarian’s offices keep their own database, but registering the animal in the national AKC database is crucial if you ever travel outside your area with your animal. For a small registration fee, the animal’s identification number is saved in a national database. The only time owners must pay again for registration is when they move.

Saving Animals That Would Be Doomed

The number of stray animals that end up in shelters and at vet’s offices overwhelms the capacity of these facilities. Animal shelters throughout the country regularly face a dire task—they must euthanize well over half their dogs, and almost three-quarters of their cats, within a week. The primary reason these animals must be destroyed is because there is no way to positively identify owners. One of the most encouraging benefits of the CAR microchip program is the number of animals that are saved from euthanization. With the microchipping program, a virtual protective network has been cast over the nation’s animal shelters: it is now routine practice for shelters and vet’s offices to scan every domestic animal that is brought in as a stray, and one of the most exciting moments a shelter worker can experience is the discovery that an animal does have an owner, and to be able to contact the owner right away to say that the pet has been found. If a stray animal does not already have a microchip, many shelters will implant one, so that any future owners will have the advantage of positive identification.

Animal hospitals deal with many injured animals, and without being able to identify the owner, the animal doctors may not be able to perform life-saving treatment. Dr. Jeffrey Steen, at Alameda East Veterinary Hospital, outside Denver, Colorado, says, “We have had a number of dogs that come in that have been hit by cars.” If they have a chip, “We can contact the owner in 5 or 10 minutes and have the dog treated. It can come down to where the dog is probably not going to make it without aggressive treatment, and we can’t do aggressive treatment without permission from the owners. We’ve saved several dogs that way.”

A Thousand Ways to Lose Your Pet

Vets report that the most common time a pet is lost is during relocation, when people are in a new house and may be unfamiliar with the quirks of the entry doors or unaware of a gap in the new backyard fence. Animal theft is more common than most people realize, especially in cities, and is likelier if you have a pure-bred animal. Pat Ornberg, in El Paso, and April Bufton, outside Chicago, say that pets are stolen all the time. Collars, the most common form of dog identification, can be removed very easily, leaving the animal with no visible form of identification. Some vets even describe cases in which pet owners have seen their stolen dog being walked by someone else, but have no way to prove it. With a microchip, however, if a pet owner loses an animal and then sees it in someone else’s possession, an animal control officer can be contacted and asked to do a scan to identify the animal.

In California, with the chaos created by annual forest fires, dogs and cats often get loose. If their animal is microchipped, owners have a higher expectation that they will be reunited at some point. In a couple of extreme cases, animals are lost and then turn up thousands of miles away, on the opposite coast, where they are scanned and identified using the national database. But most recoveries are much more mundane—simple stories of cats or dogs getting lost, wandering away, and then being returned safely home. There is the story of a couple that lost their dog while hiking in the woods, and were contacted shortly after when another hiker brought the pet to a local vet’s office where it had been scanned. Laura Reynolds, at the Arlington Animal Hospital in California, tells the story about a family that had a poodle microchipped. “One day, they were out in their yard gardening, and all of a sudden the dog was gone. About nine months later, the dog was taken to a vet about a half hour from the home.” The people who brought the dog in mentioned that they had found the dog, a statement that sends up a red flag to most vets. “The vet scanned it, and sure enough the chip was there and the dog was returned home.”

Future Possibilities

Currently, the microchips used for animal recovery contain simple data—an identification number for the animal. The technology, however, has vast potential to store much more detailed information. Several veterinarians believe that the chips may one day contain the animal’s age, information about the animal’s last vaccinations, health issues that vets should be aware of for that animal, and many other details. Another exciting possibility is to link the microchip data with global positioning systems (GPS). With GPS, even if the animal is lost in a remote area, it could be located and brought back to the owner. The advantage of GPS is that the pet owner would not have to wait for someone else to find the animal and bring it to a vet’s office for identification. In the years ahead, as more people choose to have their companion animals microchipped, and create a demand for even greater services, these and other new features may become a reality.

Convincing More Pet Owners, Enrolling More Pets

It is difficult to find a vet who does not wholeheartedly endorse the CAR microchipping program. Jeffery Steen, at Alameda East, says, “It is a phenomenal program. There’s really no downside to it at all.” In order to help spread the word about the benefits of microchipping, many veterinarians discuss microchipping and perform the procedure for a nominal fee at public events, often in tandem with rabies clinics. Dr. Lourdes Garden, at the Ramapo Valley Animal Hospital, says she does about 25 microchips in a couple of hours during one of these events. Some vet’s offices, like Alameda East, give out certificates for free microchips at local fairs and festivals. These kinds of events create a sudden flurry of requests as people who have animals microchipped tell some of their friends about it.

Even with these events, every vet interviewed for this story said that microchipping needs to be more common. Much of the responsibility for this rests on the shoulders of pet owners. But veterinarians agree that they have a responsibility as well. Some vets, like Jeffery Steen at Alameda East, urge every client who comes into the office to get their animals microchipped. Other vets concede that they should be more proactive. Pat Ornberg, of the Eastwood Animal Clinic, says, “If vets would push it a little bit, even mention it more, we would get more of a response than we do get.” Dr. Lourdes Garden says, “We probably don’t try to bring it up enough. We probably could do more.”

Vets are emphatic in saying that losing a pet happens far more often than most people realize. There also seems to be a nearly universal consensus, from vets working all regions of the country, that microchipping is creating a wide security net protecting against the separation of people and their companion animals. Too many people assume that their animal will never be missing or lost, or that name tags will be enough for positive identification. But over half of lost cats and dogs end up losing their tag. Vets say that complacency about losing a pet is common, and owners who lose a pet often report that they, too, once thought it would never happen to them. With a microchip, vets say, pet owners have a form of permanent identification and can avoid the nightmare of losing a pet without hope of recovery.