Does your staff know how microchipping works? (Hint: it’s not GPS)

Like most shelters in the US, AAHA-accredited Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–Angell Animal Medical Center (MSPCA–Angell) shelter in Boston sees a spike in runaway and lost pets every Fourth of July—there’s a 30% increase in lost pets each year due to dogs and cats being freaked out by fireworks displays.

The lucky ones are microchipped.

Rob Halpin, MSPCA–Angell’s director of communications, told NEWStat that microchips are “essential” in reuniting lost pets with their owners, and not just on the Fourth of July: “We typically return three or so pets to owners every month after they get loose and, fortunately, are brought to the shelter by good Samaritans who find them.”

Unfortunately, a lot of owners, and even hospital employees, don’t fully understand the importance of microchipping pets because they don’t really know how microchips work, or even what they are.

Annalisa Berns, owner of Pet Search and Rescue in Southern California and a licensed private detective who consults on missing pet cases all over the country, told NEWStat most people think microchips are global positioning (GPS) devices that automatically track pets.

They’re not.

Microchips are radio-frequency identification (RFID) implants that provide permanent ID for the pet.

Injected via hypodermic needle under the pet’s skin and the size of a grain of rice, a microchip can’t get lost—unlike the pet it’s in. And unlike a GPS tracker, it doesn’t require a power source, because there’s no battery and no moving parts—which means there’s nothing to keep charged, wear out, or replace. Microchips are designed to work for 25 years, so they’ll easily last the lifetime of most pets.

Each microchip contains a unique registration number and the phone number of the registry for the brand of chip. A special, handheld scanner reads the radio frequency of the chip and displays this information. An animal shelter or veterinary hospital that finds and scans the pet can contact the registry to get the owner’s name and phone number.

There used to be problems caused by different microchip companies maintaining entirely separate databases. Not anymore. Today, some chip companies register pets with any brand of chip. And there are several free microchip registries available for owners to register chip information regardless of who made the chip.

In 2009, AAHA launched its Universal Pet Microchip Lookup Tool which provides a listing of the manufacturer with which the microchip’s code is associated as well as which participating registries list the chip information. The AAHA database does not provide owner information for the microchip—if users find the manufacturer in the Lookup Tool, they still have to contact the manufacturer before they can contact the pet owner. But it’s a great place to start and makes reuniting a microchipped animal with his owner much more likely.

While microchips aren’t foolproof—and pet owners shouldn’t rely on them exclusively to protect their pet—they’re undeniably effective in helping to recover lost pets, as 99% of pet hospitals and shelters have scanners.

A study of more than 7,700 stray animals at animal shelters showed that dogs without microchips were returned to their owners 21.9% of the time, whereas microchipped dogs were returned 52.2% of the time. Cats without microchips went home with their owners only 1.8% of the time, while microchipped cats were reunited with their owners 38.5% of the time.

It’s important for hospitals to remind owners to keep their contact information updated because the most common reason for microchipped animals not being returned to their owners is incorrect information (or no information) in the microchip registry database.

Berns also offered this tip for hospitals when registering with the microchip manufacturer: “Always put two phone numbers: the owner’s, and an emergency contact.”

MSPCA–Angell’s Halpin said that, in addition to collars and ID tags, microchips serve as a “safety parachute” should all else fail and an animal ends up in a veterinary hospital  or shelter. “If microchipped, that animal can be immediately reunited with their owner.  If not, there’s every chance that pet may end up re-homed with a new family, because there would be no way of finding their original owner.”

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