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Tawny Flechtner/MEDILL

Data courtesy of the  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical from the study "Characterization of animals with microchips entering animal shelters," published in July.

A recent study found the median "return-to-owner" rate for microchipped animals across 53 participating shelters was much higher than the rate for non-microchipped animals.

Microchips 101: What every pet owner needs to know

by Tawny Flechtner
Jan 28, 2010


Tawny Flechtner/MEDILL

University of Chicago veterinary medical student Jeff Anderson implants a kitten with a microchip that could be scanned if the kitten gets lost.


Tawny Flechtner/MEDILL

Data courtesy the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association

The study found that  animal shelters had major problems reuniting microchipped pets with families due to the lack of registration, registration with  different data banks and inaccurate owner information. "Other" includes information from breeders, pet stores and rescue groups.



Tawny Flechtner/MEDILL

Data courtesy the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association

The major problem in reuniting microchipped animals with their owners is incorrect contact information, according to the JAVMA study. Pet owners can easily address this problem to maximize the chips' effectiveness.

It’s about the size of a grain of rice, but it could mean the difference between never seeing your best friend again, or having him home for his dog chow by suppertime.

The pet microchip, inserted with a hypodermic needle between an animal’s shoulder blades, works something like a bar code and has proven to be a valuable tool in reuniting lost pets with their families.

Just ask Macho, a bull mastiff and American bulldog mix who, earlier this month, won a welcome reunion with his grateful family in Garfield Park because of a microchip implant. Macho went missing from his home just before Thanksgiving, and was found malnourished in an unheated basement during an eviction. Another dog found in the basement had died of starvation. The chip may just have saved Macho’s life as well as his home.

Getting an animal chipped can cost as little as $10 at clinics such as those run through Cook County Animal Control during the summer months.

Yet proponents of the pet microchip have fought an uphill battle in the United States, despite what seems overwhelming evidence of the benefits. 

“There’s just really no disadvantage to getting an animal micro-chipped,” said Robyn Barbiers, a veterinarian with the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society. 

Barbiers said one concern for pet owners is the pain of the procedure, which she described as no worse than a flu shot. She also added that she had never heard firsthand any reports about biting or scratching at the chip. Sometimes, the chip migrates, she said, but that can easily be remedied by having it checked at regular vet visits.

Also, some people don’t think their animals need chips if they live entirely indoors, she said.

“But it’s very easy for a pet to get out, if workmen come by and leave a door open, or in an emergency,” she said. “Unfortunately, house fires do happen, tornadoes do happen.”

Barbiers’ assessment is supported by the numbers. A July study published in the Journal of American Veterinary Medicine showed that the median return-to-owner rate at shelters was more than twice as high for chipped dogs than non-chipped ones. For chipped cats, the median return-to-owner rate was over 20 times higher than for non-chipped cats, according to the study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University and other institutions.  

It’s difficult to pin down a precise catalyst for this increasingly popular procedure, but one event that may have swayed public favor.

“We’ve learned from mistakes that were made during the Katrina disaster,” said Donna Alexander, a veterinarian with Cook County Animal Control. “In that situation, it was not so much that animals weren’t saved, it was a problem of trying to reunite the animals with their owners. After Katrina, there has been more support for permanent identification of animals.”

But has general support translated into regular practice? Not according to John Snyder, United States Humane Society vice president of companion animals.

 “I saw my first microchip at a conference in 1986, so they’ve been around for a while, and they have not reached the level that they have in places like the UK or Canada,” Snyder said. “But that is because we have so many different formats.” 

Snyder referred to what’s proven to be the biggest headache for pet microchip proponents in the U.S.—the problem of standardization. Until recently, even if you had your animal chipped, it was no guarantee the scanner used on your pet could read the chip or even locate it in the animal.

“In the UK the only chip that’s allowed is the ISO standard,” Snyder said. “In the United States, there are four or five different frequencies. To accommodate those, we pressured the industry to develop, build and distribute a universal, or global, scanner.” 

ISO stands for “International Standards Institute.” ISO standards for microchips were implemented in 1996, and dictate both layout of the information on a chip and the protocol for communication between a chip and scanner. These standards are accepted by Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia, and endorsed by the American National Standards Institute.

However, chip manufacturers have historically called the shots in the U.S.—until about six years ago.

In 2004, the Humane Society, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and several other animal welfare groups banded together to form the Coalition for Reuniting Pets and Families. 

The coalition called on microchip manufacturers to “permit the use of a scanner that can read all microchips—and that such a scanner be made readily available to shelters, animal control officers and veterinarians throughout the country,” according to the Web site.

The coalition has met with success in this endeavor, and the chip manufacturers agreed, of their own accord, to work on a universal scanner. 

“We now have a scanner that will read all the chips manufactured by all the different companies,” Snyder said.  “Six years ago that didn’t exist.”

But the advent of the scanner hasn’t quite undone the whole Gordian microchip knot. 

According to the Journal of American Veterinary Association study, “The United States is the only country in which the implantation of a microchip is often treated as a separate process from registration with a microchip registry.”

Not surprisingly, this has tarnished the microchips’ track record for bringing lost pets home. In almost 10 percent of cases in the study, lost pets were unable to get back home because they weren’t registered in any
microchip database.

In another 17 percent of these cases, pets were registered to databases separate from those of the various manufacturers, further stymieing efforts to return them to owners.

Recently, the American Animal Hospital Association succeeded in bringing some order to the chaos. In September,  it created a universal pet microchip lookup tool that, free of charge, aggregates identification information from participating pet recovery services, chip manufacturers and distributors. 

Though the tool is still a work in progress, and would not be useful in cases in which an animal is simply not registered anywhere, it promises to at least speed up and simplify the reference process.

Another registration issue: Pet owners aren’t always good at keeping their information current.

“One of the big problems with the chips is that people don’t keep up with their registry,” Barbiers said. “So if you move, you have to remember to notify, otherwise the chip isn’t going to work.” 

Given all the technical glitches, Barbiers and other animal health specialists have one simple recommendation: old fashioned collars and tags.

“Certainly we highly recommend both chipping and collar and tags. Collar and tags are very visual, and should your pet get loose, anyone could find your pet if the collar is still intact,” she said. “We recommend the microchip because the collar can easily be removed and the tag lost, so it’s always good to have a combination but [the collar] is just an easier visual.”

Get a chip, the experts say, but don’t forget to hold up your end for maximum effectiveness. 

“People should talk to their veterinarians, get their advice and opinions, and make sure that the veterinarian, or a shelter in the community they live in has a universal scanner. Make sure that your vet, and your shelter and everybody, are in tune,” Barbiers said.