To chip or not to chip? That’s the question many pet parents have when it comes to microchipping their pets. The use of microchips as a system to reunite lost or stolen pets with their owners began in 1985, and is currently used by thousands of animal shelters and veterinary hospitals around the world.
Millions of pets escape, get lost, or become separated from their owners every year. Sadly, only about 20% of dogs and less than 2% of cats who find their way into shelters are ever reclaimed by their owners. However, among microchipped pets who are brought into shelters, approximately 52% of dogs and 39% of cats are reunited with their owners.
What Is Microchipping?
Microchipping consists of using a large-gauge needle and syringe to insert a small, sterile electronic chip underneath the skin of an animal, usually between the shoulder blades. The chip, slightly larger than a grain of rice, is enclosed in a glass cylinder and contains a unique identification number.
The microchip is activated when a special scanner is passed over the animal’s body. The scanner uses radio waves to activate the chip, which then transmits the identification number to the scanner, where it displays on a screen.
The person scanning the pet can then contact the microchip registry to report the number. If the microchip has been properly registered by the owner of the pet, the registry can use the number to identify the lost pet’s owner.
What You Need To Know About Microchipping
The microchipping system can be an extremely valuable tool to help reunite owners with lost pets. However, it’s not foolproof. For the system to be effective, 3 things have to happen: the microchip needs to be functioning correctly and in the right place in the pet’s body; the scanner must be able to read the chip; and the database that holds the owner’s information must be accurate and up to date.
If you decide to microchip your pet, here are 5 important things you need to be aware of.
The microchip is useless if you don’t register it.
Your pet’s microchip is not a GPS tracker. It doesn’t send out any type of signal unless it’s being scanned with a microchip scanner, and it doesn’t contain any personal information. If the identification number on the microchip is not linked to valid, up to date registration information on file with a registry, then the chip is essentially useless.
One study showed that when shelters did find microchips in pets, only 58% of those chips were actually registered. The other 42% of owners never submitted their contact information to a registry, making it impossible to locate them.
There are several brands of microchips on the market, and not all scanners can read all chips.
There are numerous companies that sell microchips for pets, including AVID, Bayer, HomeAgain, ResQ, 24PetWatch, and the American Kennel Club (AKC). These chips all operate on one of 3 main frequencies: 125 kHz, 128 kHz, and 134.2 kHz. The “frequency” of a microchip actually refers to the frequency of the radio waves given off by the scanner that activates and reads it.
Simply put, not all scanners can read all of these frequencies. So if your pet has an AVID microchip (which activates with a 125 kHz scanner), but he is brought to a shelter that only has a 128 kHz scanner, the shelter staff will never know your pet is microchipped. Fortunately, there are now universal scanners available that read all 3 frequencies, but not all shelters or veterinary hospitals have them yet.
Currently, there is no one universal microchip registry.
Several different microchip registries exist, but they don’t all share information with each other. For example, let’s say your dog has a HomeAgain microchip and you register that microchip number with the AKC registry. If your dog gets lost and ends up in a shelter, and the shelter finds your HomeAgain chip, they will call HomeAgain to get your contact info. If HomeAgain doesn’t have your current information on file, they will be unable to find you.
The American Microchip Advisory Council For Animals is working to create a universal database that will hopefully eliminate this problem, but until it’s created, your best option is to register your microchipped pet with multiple registries.
Microchipping is not completely foolproof.
Microchips themselves can be defective and fail, although those cases are extremely rare. They can also be improperly implanted in the wrong location, making them difficult to find. If you microchip your pet, ALWAYS have it done by a licensed veterinarian.
Microchips can also be missed by the people scanning for them. This can be due to many factors, including using an improper scanning technique, a malfunction of the scanner, the presence of badly matted hair or excess body fat around the area containing the microchip, even a collar that contains metal sitting close to where the microchip is implanted.
Fortunately, microchips show up very clearly on x-rays, so for veterinary hospitals, x-rays are a good way to confirm the presence of a chip.
Microchipping is not a replacement for a good old fashioned collar with tags.
Although microchips can be a great tool for helping reunite pets and owners, nothing replaces up-to-date ID tags. Most dogs or cats who escape or get lost are found by neighbors or other people on the street – and those people won’t be carrying microchip scanners with them. You can save your pet a traumatic trip to the shelter by making sure he or she has a collar and tags with current contact information. However, if a collar does happen to come off, microchips are a good backup.
Concerns About Microchipping
Over the years, there have been some concerns raised about the safety of microchipping pets. As with anything, some of those concerns are valid, some are not. Below are common questions often asked of veterinary professionals about microchipping.
I heard microchips can migrate in the body. Is this true?
Occasionally, microchips can migrate from their original location where they were implanted. The chips are inserted under the skin between the shoulder blades, but sometimes they can move up to the back of the neck, down the side, even down a leg or into the abdominal area.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, these cases are relatively rare, but they do happen. Some microchips are now being made with anti-migration features to increase the likelihood that they’ll stay in place when they are implanted.
If your pet is microchipped, you can ask your veterinarian to scan for the chip at your pet’s annual exam to make sure that it’s still in the correct location.
Can microchips cause cancer or other health issues?
Any time that you implant a foreign material into the body (including metal plates, screws, wires, and yes, microchips), the risk always exists for the body to reject it. There are also cases where medical implants have been linked to inflammatory reactions, the development of autoimmune disorders, and the formation of tumors in the area around the implant.
The British Small Animal Veterinary Association, which maintains a database of adverse reactions to microchips, reports that since the database was started in 1996, over 4 million animals have been microchipped and only 391 adverse reactions have been reported. Of these, 2 dogs and 2 cats were reported to have developed cancerous tumors at the site of the microchip injection. Of those 4 cases, in one dog and one cat the tumor could not be directly linked to the microchip and may have been caused by something else.
So statistically speaking, the chance of developing cancer or other adverse reactions from a microchip is extremely low. That being said, however, the risk still exists, so each person needs to weigh the benefits and risks of microchipping for themselves.
Is microchipping painful?
Microchips are inserted through the skin with a thick, 12-gauge needle. According to many sources, this procedure is supposedly no more painful than a regular vaccine injection.
Here’s where I weigh in. A 12-gauge needle is not insignificant, and depending on the size of the patient, in some cases it’s large enough to leave a temporary hole in the skin. While working as a Registered Veterinary Technician, I witnessed several microchip implantations, and I can personally attest to the fact that every one of the patients I saw reacted much more strongly to having a microchip inserted than they did to receiving a vaccination. Smaller dogs and cats sometimes cried out, and even large dogs with thicker skin visibly flinched.
Because of this, if you elect to have your pet microchipped, try to have it done while they are already under anesthetic for another procedure, such as spaying, neutering, or dental work. You also have the option of requesting that your veterinarian use a local anesthetic to help make the procedure less uncomfortable.
Does registering my pet’s microchip compromise my privacy?
When completing your pet’s microchip registration, the only information entered into the database is the information you choose to provide. Registries are also secure and protected, so a random person is unable to look up your personal info.
Increasing Your Odds For A Happy Reunion
Keep in mind that a microchip is not the way most pets are returned to their owners – the quickest way for a lost pet to get home is still with a collar and current ID tags. However, since microchips cannot be removed, lost, or altered, they can provide a permanent and valuable backup system in case your pet ever becomes separated from you or is stolen.
The decision of whether or not to microchip your dog or cat is dependent on your pet and your individual circumstances. If you do decide to have your pet microchipped, be sure you are proactive by checking these 3 critical things off your list:
- Register the microchip with multiple agencies.
- Ask your veterinarian to scan your pet once a year to make sure the chip is still in place and functioning.
- Keep your registration information up to date at all times.
The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association have designated August 15th as “Check The Chip Day.” One day each year, take a few minutes to check your microchip registry information and update it if necessary. That way you can be assured that if your pet is ever lost or stolen, there’s a much better chance for the two of you to be reunited.
What are your thoughts about microchipping? Are your pets microchipped? Please tell us about it in the comments below!