Microchip Monday: The Case of the Missed Microchip

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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:

how-pet-microchips-work graphic

(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!

young woman scanning dog for a microchip

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.

25 Responses

  1. Nancy says:

    These comments scare me to death. Now I don’t trust anyone to know what they are doing when checking for my dogs chip!

  2. Jackie says:

    I am searching for my lost cat, and I wondered, do vets scan for chips on every pet that comes in for treatment? if someone took him to the vet as if he were their own pet to be treated, would they scan and find out, and would I be contacted? He is a beautiful Melanistic Bengal, and I worry that he may be in someone’s home and we wouldn’t be reunited unless the chip was read…

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Jackie: When someone brings a pet to the vet, the vet takes it on good faith that the pet is theirs unless they’re told differently. If you suspect your cat may be taken to the vet, you should contact vets in your area and let them know your cat is lost. Better yet, bring fliers to them with your cat’s picture. For more ideas on what you can do, see our blog here: http://blog.adoptandshop.org/microchip-monday-lost-pet/. Good luck!

  3. Lisa says:

    Hello, I’ve lost my beloved buffy in June 2015. I have often wondered if the person scanning would do a complete scan. This was a very infomative article. I pray every day that someone calls me. BUFFY HAS A 24 hr pet watch microchip. But would they scan properly, so I post and fax flyers every month and use Facebook continously to get the word out. However, I microchiped her for a reason. To get her home. Then someone told me that the chip can move . Thanks, now I know that it isn’t possible. If she gets scanned properly, she will come home.
    Lisa howard

  4. POE says:

    My dog has been missing for 3 years. She is microchipped and just last week, I found her microchip certificate. I did some research and was able to find out that she is alive and in the care of someone else. Turns out the chip was mistakenly NOT registered to me and is now registered under someone else’s name. The original microchip is NOW registered to me, but two different people are now linked to the same chip. I am not privy to the current owners information, but am going to do whatever it takes to get my dog back. Do you know what steps I should take to get in contact with the current owner? You mentioned a few times on your site (in the Microchip Monday section) that AVID does not subscribe to certain databases, how do I ensure that MY contact info. comes up if the chip is scanned again (because it was clearly scanned once and the current owner was able to retrieve its unique code to register it themselves). Appreciate any insight you can give me. – POE

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi POE: Your question is a complex one, so we’ve broken it down into parts as follows:

      • My dog has been missing for 3 years. She is microchipped and just last week, I found her microchip certificate. I did some research and was able to find out that she is alive and in the care of someone else. Turns out the chip was mistakenly NOT registered to me and is now registered under someone else’s name.
      To update in the Found Animals registry we’d just need ownership paperwork – more info in blog here: http://blog.adoptandshop.org/how-to-update-microchip/.

      • The original microchip is NOW registered to me, but two different people are now linked to the same chip.
      Is the chip registered in two different databases? They would need to be updated separately (see blog above). It won’t allow two registrations in the same database for the same chip, but the different registries don’t communicate or update each other.

      • I am not privy to the current owners information, but am going to do whatever it takes to get my dog back. Do you know what steps I should take to get in contact with the current owner?
      If the pet has been stolen the best strategy is to contact local animal control (sometimes this is the PD or city/county shelter). Registries can’t solve ownership disputes because they’re a legal issue, but animal control authorities can help.

      • You mentioned a few times on your site (in the Microchip Monday section) that AVID does not subscribe to certain databases, how do I ensure that MY contact info. comes up if the chip is scanned again (because it was clearly scanned once and the current owner was able to retrieve its unique code to register it themselves). Appreciate any insight you can give me. – POE
      The petmicrochiplookup.org tool is a search engine for registries – like a Google search. It checks basically all the registries except Avid, but does not give out any owner contact info. The contact info isn’t on the chip itself; just the ID number. So, to make sure the registry contact info is correct, an owner would have to contact each registry that has a record for that pet individually. Owners can search petmicrochiplookup.org to see which registries actually need to be updated, but again, Avid won’t be listed there even if they have a record for the pet… they need to be called separately.

      I hope this helps!

  5. caninecare says:

    you can download studies on our website caninecare (dot) org that will tell you the dangers of these things. That info isn’t getting out there cause it’s a big business. I was so scared after reading them I ran to get the chip taken out of my dog, but it was imbedded in the muscle so it could not be removed without doing damage. So I had to leave it. I will NEVER chip my dog. I will opt for getting a tattoo instead when spaying /neutering.

  6. Abba Remite says:

    Scary stuff.
    Just when you think you are protecting your fur baby, spending the time and money to do so, then
    you feel helpless reading this, like a bad mother. Horrible

  7. W says:

    I adopted a chipped kitten from a local rescue agency many years ago. I filled out all of the paperwork which was supposed to be forwarded to the company that registers the chip. When the cat was about 5, my vet had a new scanner and was testing it out. The chip was there, but BLANK. The rescue agency had never sent my information to the chip registry. I recommend you have your vet scan your pet just to confirm that the chip has your data. I immediately notified the rescue agency and they were amazingly nonchalant about it. “Oh well. It happens.” This was not the response I expected.

    • Annie M says:

      Hi W, I don’t know what you mean when you say the chip was blank. A microchip only contains a unique number, not your contact information. The scanner must have pulled up a number? It is not safe to assume that a rescue agency or shelter will register the chip on your behalf, even if they say they will. We always recommend you do it yourself and check it/test it every time you go to the vet so that you know it is done properly. We are working on a new Microchip Monday that talks about this very thing so I’m glad you commented. A lot of pet owners go through the same. Thanks!

  8. Megan says:

    I saw a loose pit bull narrowly miss being hit by a car on a busy street. I picked her up and, surprise, no collar, so I stopped by my vet’s office to have her scanned for a chip. A tech scanned her and did not find a chip. A second tech watching noticed she was using the scanner incorrectly and in showing her how to use the scanner detected a chip. They gave me the chip number and website to report the dog. Within 15 minutes of entering the information on the website I received a phone call and was connected to the owner of the dog. I was impressed with how smoothly the system worked once the chip was identified, but it was disturbing how easily that chip could have been missed.
    Ironically, the owner of the dog was annoyed he had to drive 15 minutes to my house to collect his dog — complete jerk! At least the dog was very sweet. As an owner of two pit bulls, I know most people would be hesitant to approach them to help if they were lost.
    I always have collars with tags with my address and phone number on my dogs as well as having them microchipped.
    I wonder how to determine which frequency chips my dogs have?

    • Annie M says:

      Hi Megan, He doesn’t know how lucky he is that you went so far out of your way to reunite them. We really do believe that microchips work and a smooth reunion like you experienced is exactly what we are working for, so thank you for sharing your story! You can determine what frequency your dog’s chips are by basing it off the number of digits and the manufacturer. There is a guide in our just published AAHA Lookup Tool blog linked here. I wish there was an easier way but you can cross-reference the number of digits with the number sequence provided and come up with the brand and frequency. Thank you very much for stopping by!

  9. cindy says:

    How about tatooing or something that lasts forever, cheap to do, placed in the same area on every animal, etc. Maybe inside the ear? I know ears can be torn off. Or under the arm pit? It can be shaved to get the number if fur has grown over it. Inside of a back leg? I almost flipped when I read this. I have indoor cats and noticed that rochester’s mc floats some. I w/be devastated if this happened to any of my pets. In fact, I think I’ll micro chip the bunnies or tatoo them with the number and info. Or both. Anything could happen, a tornado, somehow them getting loose–even if they are in cages. Thanks for sending this to me. I’ll forward it to others. Jesus Loves YOU!

  10. Karen Engman says:

    Trovan chips are notorious for being difficult for scanners to read – there is a shelter in the area our rescue covers that uses these chips and when we get a dog into our rescue with one of those chips we actually re chip the animal with either an Avid or Home Again chip. And once you find a chip knowing which of the multitude of registries to search to find out if the chip is registered is a crap shoot. Even the AAHA search database is suspect – one of our dogs that was chipped with an Avid chip 6 years ago and registered by us (we had the written confirmation from Avid) was returned to rescue and when I used AAHA to see when the chip was last registered it showed that the chip was not registered at all!!!! I called Avid and confirmed the chip was registered to our rescue! How frightening if that dog had ended up in a shelter and we were not contacted because AAHA said the chip was not registered!!!!

    • Annie M says:

      Hi Karen, Unfortunately Avid and 24PetWatch don’t participate in the Lookup tool. They are the only 2 registries that we know of that declined to participate. We just published another Microchip Monday this morning all about the AAHA Lookup Tool, I’m linking it here in case you’d like to read it. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  11. Linda says:

    When I worked at a local SPCA as an animal control officer I scanned every domestic animal I picked up, dead or alive. I was shocked (and horrified!) when an angry dog owner came in to claim their pet and demanded to know why they weren’t called immediately because of his chip (his dog got out a lot). I had scanned that dog myself and couldn’t find one.

    The owner (a veterinarian) made me scan the dog again in front of him and … nothing. He then used the scanner and found it within seconds. Whether it was because he knew where it was or I did it wrong, I will never know, but to this day it haunts me to think about how many animals I could have improperly scanned.

    This article is a life saver and should be mandatory reading for every shelter worker and animal control officer.

  12. Peggie Soltis says:

    Also, Pam, if you were to find out who stole Smokey, that microchip is proof of ownership if they won’t give her back.

    • Annie M says:

      Hi Peggie, Unfortunately a microchip is not considered proof of ownership definitively. Because a microchip can be registered in any registry and the registries are not required to share information, anyone who gets hold of a microchip number can register themselves as owner. This is why we do not recommend you put the mchip number on an external tag. Adoption paperwork or licensing paperwork under your name is proof of ownership, another good reason to pay the $20 and license your dog every year.

  13. patricia says:

    what about when someone steals a microchipped pet. then what. why not make the microchipp with a gps tracker. Someone took my Smokey from my front yard being registered, micro chipped isnt bringing her back.. thanx for nothin microchip…

    • Patricia, there is NO guarantee you will always prevail against the evil people in the world and the evil that they do, but you need to continue to give it your best shot. There are GPS trackers but they are external devices which generate a lot of heat. For a GPS to be in inside an animal would be oppressive until technology catches up. You did the Very Best you could and you should be commended for it. I am so very sorry for your loss. Someday, Patricia, you might be surprised when you get a call from close by or even very far away, that your Smokey has been found. In the meantime, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep your MICROCHIP INFORMATION UP TO DATE!!! xoxo

  14. Jim says:

    Wow, i’m surprised at all the different possibilities of missing a microchip!! I just got my boxer chipped and he’s usually really good at not running away but this article has me nervous!! Fingers crossed i never run into problems!!

    • Jim! Don’t be “nervous”. Just be conscientious. Make sure you have a good collar (that also has your info marked on the inside); extra strength rings on the collar tags, and, Most Importantly, that the microchip info is CURRENTLY UP TO DATE. Set to check it every time you change the batteries in your smoke alarms OR daylight savings time. I NAG my readers to NAG their own vets for TOP OF THE LINE scanners and to emphasize the importance of proper vs improper scanning as well. You did GOOD bny having your baby chipped, Jim!

  15. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I’ve been SCREAMING about this FUREVER! Hopefully by sharing YOUR content, owners will wake up and smell the coffee. MORE times then not I’m called to scan a pet who has been scanned previously whose chip had not been detected. Your article is beautifully written, timely, and thoughtful. Once again, Thank You! I will share it with absolute pleasure.