Microchips: Technology Can’t Replace Common Sense

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”

– Gertrude Stein


Nearly all veterinary and animal-protection organizations suggest that dogs and cats should be implanted with radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchips that allow lost or stolen animals to be identified. Such chips, about the size of a grain of rice, are implanted under an animal’s skin so that, in the event a lost animal is found, a vet’s office or animal shelter can pass a handheld scanner over the chip to retrieve the animal’s identity and contact information. Just in the United States, millions of pets are lost or stolen every year. The deployment of these chips has already prevented untold heartache and loss.

Studies of microchip effectiveness have shown that lost pets with microchips are more than twice as likely to be reunited with their humans as are lost pets without them. Especially for those of us who grew up in a time when metal tags engraved with names and phone numbers were the best preventive solution, RFID chips seem like a fantastic common-sense use of technology—a practical leap into a more compassionate future.

However, not everyone realizes that microchips require effort beyond implantation if they are to be effective. Specifically, owner contact information must be registered in appropriate databases to be useful. Initially, the only databases that served this purpose were created and controlled by the RFID technology manufacturers. With these databases, pet owners register their animals for a fee, and identifying information is made available to the veterinary offices and shelters that make use of that particular scanner technology. Because their technology and the data they collect are proprietary and not openly shared, people have found lost pets with microchips and had them scanned, only to be told that the scanner returned no helpful information.

In response to this splintered situation, a number of open-source databases have been created to allow microchipped pets to be registered (and identified) free of charge. The most common one in use in my part of the country, petmicrochiplookup.org, is operated by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), but others (freepetchipregistry.com, foundanimals.org) are striving to serve a similar purpose. While the technology companies may provide services beyond simple identification in exchange for their fees, a simple nationwide database of registered pets that is also free to access seems to be drawing closer to reality.

Usually (but not always), government-operated shelters will implant chips in any stray, u-chipped animal that comes into their care, and registration to the shelter occurs at that point. Ask questions of your local shelters and vets, register your pet’s chip number as widely as you like, and maintain good records.

Finally, keep the common-sense solutions alive. Nothing can replace the jangly reassurance of a set of dog tags trotting into the room. That’s timeless technology.


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