There are few things in veterinary medicine I can think of that I honestly believe is 100% good for EVERY patient I see. A microchip is at the top of that list. If I have a reliable way for someone to help my lost pet, I want to use it! I occasionally get surprised by someone who doesn’t know what a microchip is or thinks there’s no point in having one… so here are my thoughts:
What is a microchip?
Microchips are little implants that are placed into the fatty layer under the skin by a large needle. I usually to this when your pet is under anesthesia having another procedure like a spay, neuter, or dental cleaning done but it can be quickly and easily done in most awake pets as well. This little implant is about the size of a long grain of rice and is coded with a unique number that is read by a scanner – like your groceries at the store! The scanner pulls up the chip’s number and that number should be registered to your specific contact information (keep this current!) through the microchip company. Veterinarians and animal shelters have scanners to read for microchips and will check any lost pet someone brings in. I recommend routinely having your pet checked to see if the microchip is still reading correctly. In some cases the microchip may have migrated under the skin and end up further down the back or shoulder, and in some rare cases the microchip may have migrated out of the body (have one put back in!!).
Why have one?
The easy answer is “so if your pet is lost and someone finds her, you can get her back.” Yes, this involves someone finding your pet and taking her in to get her scanned. This literally happens EVERY DAY. People are always finding pets and bringing them in somewhere to see if there is a chip. Those with microchips and current contact information get home SO MUCH faster, often without having to wait in animal control or in a stranger’s house hoping someone eventually sees a “found pet” post. Microchips should not replace collars and identification tags. Those simple identification tags are even easier if your phone number is current, so keep them on! But tags wear down and fall off, and pets commonly slip out of collars and run away. Really the only way to truly know if a collarless dog or cat has a home is to get that implant scanned.
But what if my dogs never leave my side and my cats are all inside?
I honestly believe the pets that owners think are the “least risk” for roaming are the ones who desperately need a chip. They aren’t used to being without you or being outside and so they don’t have experience in finding their way home. Microchipping is a backup plan for the worst case – your lost, collarless pet. Lost pets often happen because some OTHER worst case life event has happened: burglary, tree limbs falling through a window or roof, car accidents when you have your dog or cat in your car, evacuations for natural disasters (tornado, flood, fire, hurricane)… the list of traumatic accidental reasons your pets can escape your safe home is long and frightening. The list of simple accidents is just as long: children leaving the door open, cats knocking a screen out of a window, dogs or cats jumping out your car window, guests or maintenance workers or movers or cleaners or pet sitters who don’t know your pet darts for the door… it’s really enough to make you crazy if you really think about all the ways animals accidentally get lost. Almost everyone knows someone who had a pet get away from them in some impossible way they didn’t ever expect.
I have to take a moment and go back to natural disasters because that is really close to me. I was in vet school in Louisiana when Katrina hit and LSU was one of the major evacuation center for people’s pets. I cannot describe to you the emotion and chaos that was our daily reality of having people dropping off their terrified family pet for us to keep in a makeshift dirt floor shelter because they had nowhere else to go with them. Microchipped pets were SO much easier to keep identified and organized with updated owner contact information. Unfortunately they were in the dramatic minority. So many of the pets had no way for us accurately identify them so we just had to try our best to document with intake pictures (these pictures don’t ever really look like your sweet pet when they are scared and dirty and exhausted). We tried to keep hospital ID name collars on them, but these fall off or wear down over months in a shelter environment and become very difficult to read. Our priority as students and volunteers was to care for all these pets and get them back to their owners who had lost EVERYTHING they owned whenever they were ready to come back for their pets. Many were in our shelter for months and their physical appearance changed dramatically in that time. The importance of a simple microchip was engrained in all our minds permanently and I know I will never have a pet without one after working and living through this experience.
So does it tell me where my pet is?
Unfortunately, it’s not a GPS. Microchipping can’t track your pet. The biggest excuse I’m given for not microchipping is that if someone steals your pet, the microchip won’t help. While it won’t help you track your pet, a microchip is the BEST way to prove that “Bella” is definitely your pet if she is scanned. That chip is always registered to you. Besides, if someone steals your pet, they’re going to take off a GPS device and collar anyway. Hundreds more pets are lost rather than stolen. The odds are in your favor with a microchip as proof of identity and ownership.
I had a sad and interesting conversation recently about legal ownership of a pet. For several years, this lady had done all the medical, emotional, and physical caring for of a pet that she and her boyfriend adopted. Turns out, the registration information on the microchip all went under her ex’s contact information. Even though she could produce years of records that she was financially responsible for everything from buying food to veterinary care, because the microchip information was listed under her ex boyfriend’s name and contact information, she had to turn the pet over to him. Pets are still considered property in our legal system and this microchip was basically his proof of ownership… like a car registration. Laws will vary by state and she may be able create a legal case later, but right now that microchip means that pet legally belongs to her ex. Nobody likes to think about custody battles, but if you want to make sure your pets stay your pets in any way you can, microchipping is pretty binding in many areas.
How do I get a microchip?
Schedule an appointment with us! We will register the number to your requested contact information at the time you have the microchip. Animal control will also microchip your pet for you, often for just the cost of the chip. You will probably have to register the number yourself (DO NOT forget this step – many lost pets have an unregistered number!). Sometimes there are FREE microchipping or deeply discounted microchipping events at dog festivals or low cost spay and neuter clinics. These discounted events happen when an organization has gotten a microchip company to donate microchips. Search around online near you for upcoming microchip events. Again, you probably will have to remember to go home and immediately register your pet’s new number to your contact information. Don’t put it off!
We are always rooting for all lost pets to get home as soon as possible. If you have any questions or concerns about microchipping your pets, please don’t hesitate to call us!
Tamara Rattray, DVM