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High Tech: Identifying Lost Pets With Microchips

Despite your best efforts, accidents can happen. Someone leaves a door ajar, an intrepid pooch digs under a fence, and your best intentions go awry: Your pet escapes and gets lost. If he's wearing a collar and identification tag, chances are good that you’ll get him back.

But what if the collar comes off?

To protect their pets, many owners turn to technology, in the form of identification microchips implanted in their pets. Microchips are tiny transponders, about the size of a grain of rice, that can be implanted in your pet's skin by many veterinarians and animal shelters; some shelters implant one in all pets they place.

Microchips are a good back-up option for pet identification, but should never be the main one. Reading a microchip takes a special scanner, one that an animal control officer or shelter will have, but your neighbor down the street will not. And if Fido wanders off, it's likely to be a private citizen who encounters him first. That's why, in the event of accidental separation, identification tags are your pet's first ticket home.

That said, microchips provide an extra level of protection in case your pet loses his collar and tags. Providing your pets with both tags and a microchip can help ensure a happy reunion if the unthinkable happens.

How and where are microchips placed?

Microchips are implanted just under the skin, usually right between the shoulder blades. This is done with a large-bore needle and doesn't require anesthesia.

Microchips work: Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and her dog were reunited by one after more than a year >>

How they work

Each microchip contains a registration number and the phone number of the registry for the particular brand of chip. A handheld scanner reads the radio frequency of the chip and displays this information. An animal shelter or vet clinic that finds your pet can contact the registry to get your name and phone number.

Can a microchip get lost inside my pet?

Your pet's subcutaneous tissue usually bonds to the chip within 24 hours, preventing it from moving. There's a small chance that the chip could migrate to another part of the body, but it can't actually get lost.

How long do microchips last?

Microchips are designed to work for 25 years.

Where can I get my pet microchipped?

Many veterinarians and some animal shelters implant microchips for a small fee. But—and this is very important—just getting a microchip isn't enough—you also need to register your pet with the microchip company.

How do I register my pet?

Complete the paperwork that comes with the chip and send it to the registry, or do it online if that option is available.  Some companies charge a one-time registration fee while others charge an annual fee.  You’ll also receive a tag for your pet’s collar with the chip number and registry phone number.

Are there different types of chips?

Yes, and that used to be a problem. Competing microchip companies use different frequencies to send signals to scanners, and until recently there was no universal scanner that could read all the different frequencies. That was a problem if a pet had a microchip that a particular scanner couldn't detect.

Many microchip companies now produce universal scanners and provide them to animal shelters and animal control agencies at no or very low cost. If your local shelters don’t have scanners, they can contact some of the major manufacturers to ask about getting one.

Are there different registries?

Yes, and that, too, used to be problematic. Different chip companies maintained separate databases. Now, some chip companies will register pets with any brand of chip Also, the American Microchip Advisory Council is working to develop a network of the registry databases to streamline the return of pets to their families.

Can a microchip replace my pet's collar and tags?

No. Despite advances in universal scanners and registry procedures, microchips aren't foolproof, and you shouldn't rely on them exclusively to protect your pet. Universal scanners can detect a competing company's chip, but they may not be able to read the data. And if shelter or vet clinic personnel don’t use the scanner properly, they may fail to detect a chip.

What if I move?

You need to contact the company that registers the chip to update your information; otherwise, the chip will be useless. You may be charged a small fee to process the update.

What do I do if I adopt a pet who's already been microchipped?

If you know what brand of chip your pet has, contact the corresponding registry to update the information. If you don’t know what type of chip your pet has, find a vet or animal shelter that can read it.

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