By Kim Everson, DVM
There are many benefits to having your beloved pet microchipped. Tracking him via GPS, however, is not one of them.
A microchip provides a unique identification number to a pet. The microchip itself is not much bigger than a grain of rice and is injected under the skin between the pet’s shoulder blades through a special needle. Many microchips are implanted while a pet is anesthetized for their spay or neuter, but sedation is not necessary. The momentary prick of the needle is well-tolerated by awake pets (as all of my microchipped dogs and cats can attest).
Once the microchip is implanted it must be activated or it will be of no use. Make sure you ask the person who implanted the microchip–your veterinarian or animal shelter–if they will be activating the microchip on your behalf. Regardless of who activates the microchip it is your responsibility to provide emergency contact information to the microchip company. If you move or change phone numbers, you must contact the microchip company to update their database.
There are many, many microchip providers. In the early days of microchip implantation everybody used a different type of chip with different frequency chip readers, so there were sometimes problems accessing the microchip information. For example, in those days, the animal shelter’s microchip scanner might identify a microchip was present but might not be able to read the number. Fortunately, microchip companies have agreed on a standardized system and most veterinarians and animal control officers have “universal” microchip readers that can identify the number from any brand of microchip.
Nowadays, if your lost microchipped pet is picked up by the animal control officer or brought to a veterinarian, a universal microchip scanner will be passed over your pet’s neck, shoulders, back and sides. Your pet’s unique identification number will be typed into an online microchip search engine. Based on the brand-specific configuration of the microchip number (its number and/or letter sequence) the search engine will provide contact information for the particular microchip company. The animal control officer or veterinarian will then contact the microchip company to get your name and telephone number so you can be reunited with your pet.
Too many times, however, the database has inaccurate, out-dated information. Owners often move or get rid of phone numbers and forget to inform the microchip company. Some but not all microchip companies charge a fee to update contact information, but this nominal fee is worth the “insurance” that you can be reached if your pet is lost or stolen some time in the future.
While currently there are no GPS microchips* available, some microchip companies provide additional membership benefits beyond the “barcode” identification service. Free poison control case consultation, 24/7 veterinary advice (such as “Can my pet wait until tomorrow to be seen by his regular veterinarian for this concern or is it a true emergency?”), help locating a veterinarian while traveling, and proactive pet searches (e.g., lost dog posters sent to veterinarians, shelters and volunteer searchers in the area where a pet went missing) are some examples of additional benefits from having certain brands of microchip in place.
Pet microchips have reunited countless lost animals with their human families. There are amazing stories of pets being found hundreds of miles from home and years after disappearing, but countless more stories of momentarily lost pets being quickly returned home after a brief layover at animal control. Collars and tags can become lost or removed, but a microchip is a permanent and unique way of identifying your pet in the event it goes missing.
* There are special collars available with tracking devices, but these are used mostly on hunting or working dogs.