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Despite owners' dreams, pet's microchip not a tracking device

CHICAGO -- It was 1986 when John Snyder, then managing a Florida animal-control facility, saw his first microchip. He thought it was The Solution when it came to lost pets.

CHICAGO -- It was 1986 when John Snyder, then managing a Florida animal-control facility, saw his first microchip. He thought it was The Solution when it came to lost pets.

"We thought it was 'Star Wars,' really cool," said Snyder, now vice president, companion animals, for the Humane Society of the United States. "It solved all the problems -- it won't come off like collars and tags, people won't remove them when they bathe the pet."

But microchips -- devices about the size of a grain of rice that are implanted between a pet's shoulder blades and can help trace an animal back to its owner -- haven't been a panacea. And generally, the problems lie not with the chips but with the pet owners, who often make wrong assumptions or fail to do what's necessary to be reunited with a lost animal. In addition, competing products and technologies also leave cracks through which lost animals can fall.

"The biggest misconception (is) people think it's a GPS device," said Dan Knox, a veterinarian and director of companion animal operations with AVID Identification Systems, the leading supplier of microchips.

Added Kathleen Heneghan, past president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association, who has a practice in the western suburbs: "No, we can't track (pets) going 10 miles an hour down Grand Avenue. ... And people don't realize that if they don't register their pet, if they move or change phone numbers, well, that's it."


"Lack of identification is probably the most common cause of death for animals in this country," Knox said. "And that microchip is that animal's phone call home -- if the information is current."

There's the rub. When people adopt a chipped dog or a cat, they need to make sure they're registered with the chip data base. Their name, address and phone numbers all go into the file. When a lost pet is brought to an animal-control facility or a vet's office, it gets scanned. The microchip is activated when the hand-held scanner passes near it, and the scanner reads the number in the chip, which is then matched to the owner's contact information. Pet and owner are reunited. Tails wag, people smile. At least that's how it's supposed to work.

"A lot of shelters register the chip in their name. Certain rescue groups, they keep the chip registered in their name," said Charles Craft, the supervising animal-care clerk at Chicago's Animal Care and Control. "But when you leave here, it's your dog. And it's your responsibility to update the information."

"And it's really important to have that cell phone number in your contact information," said American Kennel Club spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. "If you're traveling or you're at work, your cell phone is most likely with you, and the recovery people can get to you."

Another problem is that all scanners don't read all microchips.

Most microchips in the United States operate on 125 kilohertz. Two other chips operate at 134.2 kHz, which is the standard around the rest of the world. The American Kennel Club sells a chip that operates at 128 kHz, the only U.S. chip at that frequency. There are universal scanners -- and the various manufacturers provide thousands of free scanners to shelters and vets every year -- but even the so-called universal scanners don't always read every chip.

"I believe it's absolutely about money," Heneghan said of the competing technology. "Initially there were just a couple of chips, and it was like VHS versus Beta. Eventually one will win out."

The AKC's Companion Animal Recovery service has been around for more than 10 years. But it wasn't until last year that the AKC began offering its own microchip.


Peterson disputes the notion that the AKC chip is more difficult to read.

"I believe the majority of scanners out there do read from 125 to 128 kHz," she said. "So the majority of scanners ... certainly read the 128 chip."

But AVID's Knox believes it makes sense to go with the majority.

"The USDA recently completed a two-year study in the United States, and it showed that of the animals in the U.S. that have microchips, 98 percent are working at the 125 kHz frequency," he said.

When implanted properly and scanned correctly, a microchip can be a lifesaver. But with only 5 percent of U.S. animals chipped, older technology has its advantages too.

"Our position is, microchips are great under certain circumstances," said the HSUS' Snyder. "But nothing currently beats having an external collar and tag as the first line in getting your animal back to you."

That could be a rabies tag, a city license or a personal tag, listing a dog's name and owner's contact information.

Also, Heneghan said, pet owners need to replace the standard S-hook that comes with a rabies tag or dog license with a split ring.


"It's harder, it's more of a pain to get on the collar, but then it's more of a pain to get off the collar," she said.

Ann Markham, director of adoptions for Lake Shore Animal Shelter in Chicago, has reservations about chipping in general. She prefers a good collar and tags.

"(A lost dog) may be picked up by some character at animal care and control who forgets to scan," she said. "Or it may be in a rural area where they do not have or they do not know about chips and scanning. It's not foolproof."

Dr. Marek Dygas, supervising veterinarian at Animal Care and Control, said that from his experience, chipped pets are reunited with their owners 70 or 80 percent of the time. Without chipping, the numbers are considerably less.

"In general, about 10 percent of stray dogs have been redeemed," Dygas said. "In cats it's even less. But with microchipping, we have good success."

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