Douglas E. Welch

Writing Clips

Douglas E. Welch,

Micro-chipping your pet

Valley Scene Magazine

May 5, 2005

Losing a family pet can be a heartbreaking experience. When Rover or Tabby slips through an open door or garden gate, owners can be seen frantically driving about the neighborhood or posting signs on telephone poles. While most owners take all the usual precautions to protect their animals, some are turning to technology in order to increase the chances that their pets return home.

RFID Chips

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips are the electronic equivalent of the traditional collar and tag, except they can never be lost or removed. The small chips, 4-5mm, in length are implanted directly beneath the animal's skin, usually between the shoulder blades for easy access. These chips have a special coating that clings to the skin and prevents them from moving about once implanted. Many veterinarians provide RFID implantation as one of their normal services. Average prices run about $40 if there is an existing relationship with a vet.

When an animal is picked up by an animal shelter, or taken there by a concerned citizen, a handheld RFID "wand" reader is run across the back of the animal. This reader sends out radio waves at a certain frequency. The RFID chip absorbs this radio energy and converts it into electricity. This power then allows the chip to "chirp" back its unique numeric code. Since no batteries are required, the chips are good for the lifespan of the pet and never need to be recharged or replaced.

Some of the first users of RFID implantations were owners of high-value animals such as show dogs and racehorses, where indisputable and unchangeable identification are required. Today, even the lovable mutt and once-stray cat can enjoy the same security. Some European countries, most notably the United Kingdom, require that all pets be micro-chipped. People who are planning to move their pets out of the US are advised to research the pet ID requirements long before the move occurs.

Both Los Angeles County and Ventura County animal shelters regularly check for the presence of an RFID chip on any pet brought to their facilities. A recent California law dictated this policy and all shelters should be providing this service at the current time. Check with local shelters to confirm their microchip policies.

Issues abound

As high-tech as RFID sounds, though, there are issues that can reduce its usefulness. While micro-chipping a pet can provide an additional level of security, pet owners will still want to use the traditional methods of identifying their pets. Each pet should be equipped with a collar and tag containing a telephone number. (For security reasons, it is best to include a work or cell phone number that cannot be traced to a local address.) In this way, any neighbor who finds a pet can easily contact the owner. It is very unlikely that individuals will have the ability or equipment to scan for the RFID chip.

Just as was seen with the Beta vs. VHS video wars a few decades ago, RFID chips also suffer from having multiple technical standards. There are currently two types of chips, one used mainly in the US, and another, called an ISO chip that is used by most other countries. Currently, chip readers are only able to identify and read one standard. Most shelters do not have the necessary equipment to read both standards, although "dual-standard" readers are being developed. Pet owners should talk with their local shelters and find out which standard is used most frequently in their area before having any particular chip implanted.

Finally, the RFID chip only provides a limited amount of information. No owner information is stored directly on the chip, only a unique identification number. This means that shelters and veterinarians must then search a computer database to find the owner's contact information. Unfortunately, there is no all-encompassing database. Each of the three major providers of pet microchips, American Veterinary Identification Devices (AVID), Schering-Plough and Pet health Services Inc., maintain a separate database system for their clients. Shelters and veterinarians may have to check all three of these systems in order to locate the owner. Additionally, each of these databases requires an enrollment fee of $10-$20 to store and maintain your contact information. If this information is not entered into some searchable database, or is out of date, the RFID chip is basically worthless since the unique ID code will not relate back to an owner.

While equipping a pet with an RFID chip can add a level of security today, competing standards and confusion in the marketplace makes them less useful than they might be. Pet owners should research which chips are being used in a particular geographic area and which shelters are equipped to make use of the chip's information. RFID technology will continue to improve in the coming years and it is hoped that many of these issues will be addressed. This consolidation will benefit pet owners and their pets by making micro-chipping ubiquitous and reliable throughout the United States and the world.

More information on RFID chips and pet micro-chipping is available on the Web.

Microchips and Your Pet by Randall J. Jackson

American Kennel Club Companion Animal Recovery (AKC-CAR)

American Veterinarian Identification Devices


Pet health Services Inc.