Taking the Mystery Out of Microchips

Standard microchip next to a nickel
Standard microchip next to a nickel for size comparison

Microchips are becoming more and more common as a form of identification for our best friends. Still, there are many misconceptions about them floating around regarding what they can and can’t do. These permanent forms of pet identification can be the catalyst of joyous stories of families being reunited- a quick internet search will return an abundance of examples. They can also prove to be an endless source of headaches for rescue professionals and missed opportunities for animals to return to their homes because how chips work wasn’t explained to the owners or the owners neglected to keep their information current.

Before we delve into how microchips function, let’s take a look at what they are. Microchips are small “radio frequency identification transponders,” roughly the size and shape of a piece of long grain rice, and are encased with bioglass, a substance used for implants in animals and humans. The chip emits a radio frequency when activated by special scanners. They are dormant unless a scanner is passing over them as they have no energy source.

Microchips are administered by an injection underneath the skin roughly between the shoulder blades. The space beneath the skin (called “subcutaneous”) is also where some vaccinations and medications are given. Once the chip is injected, the animal cannot feel it.

The microchip itself only contains one piece of information: a serial number. When the chip is scanned at a shelter or veterinary clinic, only this number shows up. Many people believe that the chip itself contains their personal contact information, but it does not. Nor does it have GPS capabilities or any communication capabilities with government agencies. There are tracking devices available, like Tagg, but identification chips do not carry this ability.

Because the chip only carries a serial number, it is the owner’s responsibility to make sure that the information connected with that number is current and accurate. This means that as soon a pet is chipped, a phone call to the company that carries that brand is necessary. Many veterinary clinics and shelters leave registration up to the owner. Even if a clinic or shelter registers the chip for owners, it’s still a good idea to call and make sure that the information is correct. Some chips in adopted animals may still be registered to former owners in the databases. A microchip is only effective if the information associated with it is accurate. Many pets have gone to new homes rather than being reunited with their families simply because the chips were registered to a clinic who no longer has the owner’s information or the phone numbers associated with it were no longer in service. Each time a phone number or address changes, a call to update the microchip information is needed. Some companies do charge a small fee for this service, but the price is nothing compared to the knowledge that you can get your best friend back.

There are databases sprouting up for the registration of any chip, regardless of brand. Foundanimals.org offers this service for free. As more and more people are aware of and using these websites, it’s not a bad idea to register with them. If you’re not sure of your pet’s microchip number or which company to call for information updates, stop by any veterinarian or shelter and ask them to scan your pet. Along with the serial number, the staff can tell you which company created the chip and give you their phone number.

Privacy of information is becoming more and more of an issue in today’s society. If this is of concern, many chip companies offer the owner a choice of whether this information can be given to the finders of an animal or whether they would like the company to call them in the case of their pet being found.

Microchips are great methods of identification that cannot be lost, unlike collars or tags. Still, they are only effective with current information and if the found animal is scanned. This means that any animal found wandering about should be taken to a veterinary clinic or local shelter to be scanned for a microchip, even if the plan is to keep the animal should it go unclaimed.

Even though collars and tags can be lost, this does not mean that they aren’t a tried and true source of identification and important to keep on any pet (dogs and cats). Animals don’t always lose their collars and anyone can read a phone number from a tag- no special devices required- and help facilitate a safe return home.