July, 2005

Microchipping Should Be A Solution, Instead It’s Become A Mess

When microchipping pets first became available about 30 years ago, the American Veterinary Medical Association was a major advocate. After all, it seemed this would be a supremely efficient way to identify lost or stolen pets. Today, the AVMA is having second thoughts, and is expressing them publicly for the first time.

“We can no longer encourage microchipping until the system is fixed,” says Dr. Rosemary LoGiudice, director of the membership and field services division at the AVMA in Schaumburg, IL. “Right now, the pets are paying an unthinkable price.”

But who knew the system is broken? Certainly, the AVMA isn’t alone. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, American Humane Association, American Kennel Club and Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) are among the organizations who have teamed up to create a Coalition called Reuniting Pets and Families. Their goals are to implement a system where all chips can be read by all scanners, and to have a centralized data base of all microchipped pets.

About the size of a grain of rice, a microchip is inserted by a veterinarian under the skin between the shoulder blades of a pet. Radio waves allow scanners to read personal identification information about a pet – including the pet’s name – and the name, phone number(s), email and street address of the owner.

When the hurricanes hit Florida dozens of pets were reunited with their families as a result of having a chip. So, if the microchips save pets’ lives, what’s the problem?

“No one says microchipping is a bad idea, or that it can’t work,” says Kate Pullen, director of animal sheltering at the Washington D.C.-based HSUS. “But what’s broken about the system is that animals who have been microchipped have died because not all scanners have been able to read all the chips. That is so sad and senseless.”

The reasons for the system not working as it should are complex, having to do with scanners’ ability to read specific radio waves which the chips emit. Details on what’s gone wrong with the system vary depending on who you happen to ask. In recent years, lawsuits and allegations seem to be a favored means of communication among the chip manufacturers and those most involved.

“And the pets are losing out,” concedes Dr. Hannis Stoddard, president and founder of Avid Identification Systems, Inc. in Norco, CA. Stoddard’s quote may surprise some since his company seems to be the one most embroiled in the entanglement of lawsuits and disagreements. But then, Avid has a long history of microchipping pets in America, and has the most to lose or to gain; they control about half of the microchip market.

In the 1990’s when scanner and chip technology changed the first time, Stoddard maintains his company spent $10 million on making sure all chips could be read by all scanners.

What he doesn’t volunteer is that Avid’s chips have encrypted codes which are not truly read by some scanners. The scanners only indicate there’s a chip in the pet – but can not decipher the code to display details required to return the animal.

Stoddard explains the encryption idea is actually a tool that was created in response to requests by some animal care and control departments. If say a specific dog is accused of biting, that dog may be microchipped and forever identified should there be a repeat offense. Also, courts accept microchips as a positive form of identification.

Clearly, there is some good use for encryption, but the bottom line is that all scanners need to be able to read all the chips. This is what LoGiudice and others on the Coalition refer to as backwards and forwards technology. This would encompass all the chips used up ‘till now, as well as chips using ISO or International Standard Organization technology. Coalition members hopes ISO chips will become the standard in the future.

Just a few years back, many in the shelter world and organizations such as the AVMA encouraged transitioning to that ISO standard with the idea to get everyone in America literally on the same frequency – which previously had not been the case. Using ISO would also put America on the same standard as most of the rest of the world.

“It’s not our fault (the shelters or vet clinics) began to chip pets (using ISO chips) when there wasn’t yet an infrastructure to read them,” Stoddard says.

No matter why or who was at fault – some pets have been needlessly euthanized at shelters when scanners were not capable of reading chips, so their owners could not be located.

LoGiudice explains, “When they were scanned, no chip showed up, there was no way to know those pets were chipped.”

Avid has been resistant about transitioning to the ISO standard. The concern seems reasonable. Stoddard says his company spent millions investing in new scanners the first time the standard was changed. “What’s going to happen when in a few years people decide on yet another standard or trying out a new technology?”

However, it seems other chip manufacturers are willing, and certainly the Coalition members – who have no vested interest in any single chip manufacturer – are unanimously convinced ISO is the way to go. And they’re not alone. Congressman Greg Walden (Rep), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Forests & Forest Health, from Hood River Oregon helped to formulate a provision attached to the U.S. Department of Agriculture annual appropriations Bill (HR 2744):. “The committee supports the microchipping of pets for identification under the universal 134 kHz International Standards Organization (ISO) system to open microchip technology in which all scanners can read all chips.”

Walden points out food production animals (such as cattle), zoo animals and wildlife (sometimes tracked by researchers) are already given ISO chips. “Having consistency makes sense,” he adds. “In the UK, I’m told 25 per cent of the pets have chips, so the rate of animals returned to their families is much higher. In the U.S. only five per cent are microchipped.”

Walden, who has a Golden retriever/Labrador mix, named Yoshi, says he hopes motivation from the Federal government will help to promote an agreement among the growling manufacturers.

The fear is that veterinarians and the general public will begin to lose faith in the system. “The truth is that I can understand how they can lose that faith,” Pullen says.

Stoddard concludes, “All we want is a solution.” According to some members of the Coalition that’s a new tune he’s singing.

“It shouldn’t be a matter of who the good guys are or not,” continues Pullen. “It should be a matter of doing what makes sense for the pets – agreeing on a system that really works. Meanwhile, if all this goes through the courts that would be sad because time is of the essence. Pets are lost every day, and we need a dependable way for families to be reunited.”

“If we have a dependable (microchipping) system, all members of the Coalition would absolutely promote microchipping,” adds LoGiudice. “That means more pets microchipped and more market share for all the businesses involved, and more pets returned to their homes.”