We’ve all heard stories of pets mistakenly euthanized due to microchip mishaps. Playing up the emotional strife owners experience when their beloved pets are lost, many articles miss the core questions: what went wrong, and how can we prevent it from happening again? We need to get these pets home safely!
It’s common to blame chips “malfunctioning,” or migrating, but microchip failure and microchip migration are rarely, if ever, the true culprits. For a microchipped pet to make it home, the whole system has to work in harmony, and the chip hardware is the element that quite literally doesn’t have any moving pieces. Here are the ingredients to get your microchipped pet home:
(You can learn more about how pet microchips work in our fantastic illustrated blog.)
Because the microchip doesn’t move, doesn’t have an internal power source, and is usually guaranteed functional for at least 30 years – longer than most of our dogs and cats will be around – the chip malfunctioning is basically the least likely way for the system to fail. Failure rates for microchip transponders in a British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) study ran about 36/3,700,000. (Yes, that’s one in a million chips, or what statisticians would call an “itsy bitsy teensy weensy” little number.) Even if the microchip migrates, careful and thorough scanning should still be able to read it. For the love of Dog… it’s not the chip!
Rather, the human scanning the chip may be at fault. Animal professionals face plenty of opportunities for small snafus that can mean big trouble for lost pets. Here are just a few examples of easy mistakes that can interfere with a successful scan.
1. Metal Near the Scanner
Did you know that scanning pets that are wearing collars can cause microchips to be missed? This is because metal interferes with the scanner transmission that activates a microchip. Scanning pets near the metal components in their collars, inside cages, on metal exam tables, or even near lighting and electrical features can lead to chips not receiving enough power from the scanner to feed back their unique ID number. Now, think about your last vet visit. What are all of those super-sterile counters made out of? Meddling metal.
2. Scanner Pointed the Wrong Way
This seems very silly – why should it matter which way the scanner points? With the big round loop or plate covering the antenna on the end of a scanner, many of us imagine it as a magnifying glass. We try to position the chip in the middle. In reality, the strongest signal area will vary depending on the scanner model, but it’s often outside the loop, near ten and two o’clock. How the microchip is positioned also matters: one end of the chip will actually read better than the other. Sticky business when we can’t even see the chip! To mitigate these issues, manufacturers recommend scanning in slow figure 8s up and down a pet’s back, neck, and legs, and passing each area multiple times. This increases the likelihood that the stars will align and the scanner and chip will communicate successfully.
3. “Just Plain Finicky” Scanner
We’ve barked your ears off about non-universal scanners and how they prevent pets from making it home. That’s still true. Did you know, though, that even universal scanners can miss chips? Grrr! If the scanner is low on batteries, or has a component loose, or is better at scanning some frequencies than others, it just may not work the way you expect it to. Universal scanners have a lot of heavy lifting to do when scanning for all three US microchip frequencies at once. Many pick up the ISO standard chip faster or more consistently than older, lower-frequency chips – just one more reason to get on the universal standard and use only 134.2 kHz, 15-digit, ISO standard microchips. Also why we recommend scanning multiple times, and with multiple different universal scanners, before assuming a pet is not microchipped.
4. Scanning Too Quickly
A microchip scan should be savored slowly, like a fine rawhide or catnip toy. Animal care and control professionals are often pressed for time, and most lost pets do not feel the need to sit patiently while they are prodded by strangers. Still, slow, thorough scanning is essential to pick up every chip. We recommend humming a favorite song while scanning – this can help calm the animal, but also emphasizes how fast we tend to move in the shelter or clinic environment. If the microchip is written off before we make it through more than one verse, we may need to pause and consider all the time we will save if we actually find a registered microchip! It’s worth a second pass.
5. Not Searching the Correct Registry
We have so many microchip and registry companies in the US that it is almost impossible to get a comprehensive list – they’re always changing. However, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has a wonderful pet microchip lookup tool that searches almost all of them. This free website is the fastest, most effective way to find a registration once you know a pet’s microchip number. It’s open to the public, too… try searching your pet’s microchip to see if your registry shows up. Of course, it’s still up to us as the pet owners and rescues to make sure that all registrations are up-to-date with the correct owner and lots of contact information, but many pets do not make it home simply because the correct registry was not contacted.
If you’re not sure how vets and shelters in your area currently handle the intake of found pets, it never hurts to ask. You may be able to volunteer some time or raise money for your shelter to purchase a new universal scanner. You can even help by sharing microchip best practices including effective scanning technique and proper microchip implantation with your community.
The more we learn about permanent ID, the more pets we can get home safely. Every lost pet deserves to be found!
Does it surprise you to learn that microchip malfunction is fairly rare? Share your thoughts in the comments below.