Finding a lost pet is not as simple as a microchip

ESTERO, Fla. – Having a pet run away can be devastating, but a WINK News Call for Action investigation found that there are a few big mistakes most pet owners make that could make reconnecting owner and animal nearly impossible.

What are microchips?

Microchips are the best tool for finding a lost pet, but they are not foolproof.

“They’re not little GPS receivers, they don’t tell anybody where your animal is and they only work if you register it,” explained Raphael Moore, general counsel for the Veterinary Information Network.

Microchips work by using radio frequency identification technology. The chips are placed below the animal’s skin and are given a unique serial number. When a pet is brought to a veterinarian’s office or to a shelter, a scanner is used to see if a chip is in place and if that chip is registered.

But Moore says most pet owners make one crucial mistake.

“Less than 50 percent of microchips are registered to anyone, period,” he said.

Registering your pet

In order for microchips to be effective, pet owners have to register the chip with the manufacturer. A name, address and phone number should be given to the company that made the chip, along with the chip number.

If not, then no contact information will be associated with a scanned chip.

In addition, if a pet owner moves and does not update their microchip information, they also run the risk of never being reunited with their lost pet.

“People don’t keep their information current so if that information is no longer valid, then the chip basically is a dead end,” explained Ria Brown, spokeswoman for Lee County Domestic Animal Services.

Even if a pet owner registers their pet and updates the microchip information after a move, getting their missing pet back still is not as simple.

Multiple companies

Because there are so many microchip companies, universal scanners have popped up to help veterinarians obtain a correct reading after one scan.

But not all universal scanners are truly universal.

“There are so many complications within the industry,” explained Moore. “There’s more than two dozen chip manufacturers, not every chip reader can read every chip. So until we get companies united better and understand the real purpose behind microchipping, it’s just not…it’s not a fool-proof system.”

Every veterinarian office contacted by WINK News Call for Action said they have multiple universal scanners, including one for pets from Europe.

Laurie’s Story

Laurie Sloat has a full house. She has six dogs, but says there is always room for one more – her yellow lab, Guinness.

On July 4, 2015, Guinness got out of Sloat’s yard. Panicked, she reached out to her vet to get the name of the company that made Guinness’ microchip.

“I was flabbergasted to find out that I had not registered him,” she said.

She immediately registered her missing dog. But seven months later, he remains missing.

What is even more devastating, she says, there is a chance someone could have picked up her dog. But because of state law, she may never be reunited with him.

“It’s angering actually. It’s frustrating and angering,” she said.

Client privilege

“A vet who needs to scan an animal is limited in terms of what he or she can do,” explained Moore, the VIN general counsel.

In most states, including Florida, there is a client confidentiality law that binds a veterinarian from revealing medical information about a pet to a third party. A client is considered the person that brings an animal in and may be different from what the law would consider an owner.

“There are practice acts that says that medical information is confidential,” Moore said. “They want to maintain the trust of the client, the person who just brought in the animal.”

But if a veterinarian scans the new animal and uncovers a microchip that is registered to someone other than the client, there can be problems. Moore said the law can often put veterinarians in a tough spot, forcing them to choose ethics over the law.

“Vets are torn…they feel the whole point of having a microchip is to be, to reunite the animal with its true owner,” he explained.

And uncovering the truth about the true owner can be more complicated than just scanning a microchip.

“The big issue within the veterinary world is the misconception that a chip equates with ownership,” Moore said. “And it has nothing at all to do with ownership. It is just a registry. I often give the example of my writing the name of my daughter on her backpack the first day she goes to school…it doesn’t mean I own that backpack, it just means I got a hold of it and I inscribed it with a name and a phone number…and the microchip is the same way. It’s a piece of information, no different than a dog collar.”

Moore added that veterinarians who try to figure out ownership could “end up in the struggles between two competing factors: someone who brought in the animal, someone who claims to own the animal and it’s…there could even be a third party, someone who’s down the chain of registry, that no longer even owns it.”

Some veterinarians say they are avoiding ownership struggles completely by changing their policies. Dr. Eleanor Cooke of South Trail Animal Hospital said before she agrees to treat an animal, the client has to agree to a scan for a microchip. If that person refuses, she refuses them as clients.

Local shelters

In Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties, when an animal is brought to the local shelter, it is immediately scanned for an owner.

“Every animal that comes in is scanned for a microchip,” said Brown, the Lee County animal services spokeswoman. “We also vaccinate them and give them a flu treatment as we are moving them into where the other animals are.”

But she says Lee County goes one step further than others. According to county ordinance, if you find a stray animal, you cannot keep it. You must bring it to the shelter.

“They have 24 hours to bring them in,” she said. “The other thing is though, if you’ve found a pet and can’t get in here, call us even after hours and we will pick up the animal. So if you can’t make it in, it’s not really an excuse.”

Brown added, “that’s so that the rightful owner can find it. They’re not going to be looking for [their pet] in your house.”

Anyone who has lost a pet in Lee County is encouraged to complete a missing pet form. Owners will be notified if their pet is found.

Laurie’s Plea

Sloat, who lost her yellow lab, said she has been grateful for those who rallied behind her after Guinness escaped her yard. She also has a message for whomever has her beloved pet.

“Please bring him home,” she said. “He’s not yours, he’s ours and he’s part of our family….he belongs here.”

Sloat is offering a $1500 reward for the return of Guinness.

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