Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Microchipping: The Chip That May Save Your Pet's Life

Pet Column for the week of March 16, 2009

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Dowling
Information Specialist

As a pet owner the fear that my dog or cat will one day slip out the door unnoticed is always at the back or my mind. Unfortunately, as a veterinary student I am also well aware that the majority of those runaway animals are never returned to their original owners.

Proper identification is the best way to ensure that you and your pet are reunited if your pet is ever lost or stolen. Dr. Gary Brummet, a private practice veterinarian and adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, explains that identification for pets can come in many forms such as tags, tattoos, embroidered collars, and microchips. However, few of those identification forms are as permanent and tamper-proof as the microchip.

"A microchip is an electronic device about the size of a grain of rice that is encoded with a number unique to your pet," explains Dr. Brummet. "The microchip is implanted under the skin and muscle of your pets cervical (shoulder) region and, if implanted correctly, should stay in that area for the rest of your pet's life."

According to Dr. Brummet, the needle used for microchipping is incredibly sharp, which means microchip implantation is actually relatively painless and should only cause your pet about as much discomfort as a vaccine injection.

However, Dr. Brummet does offer a quick word of warning to all those needle-phobic owners: the needle and syringe used to implant the microchip are much larger than what you may be used to seeing. Some pet owners opt to step out of the room, or at least close their eyes, while the microchip is put in place.

Once the microchip is in place, your pet's identity can be confirmed by animal shelters and veterinary offices around the country by simply running a microchip scanner along your pet's back. The microchip scanner can be equated to the device a cashier uses to scan the barcode on your grocery items.

When the scanner recognizes the microchip, your pet's unique number will come up on the scanner screen. This number can then be given over the phone to the microchip company's hotline and is linked in the database to the contact information for the shelter or clinic that implanted the chip and to your personal contact information if you have paid to register. It is important to update your pet's microchip account if you have moved, changed phone numbers, or have any other changes to your contact information since the microchip in your pet is only as good as the information associated with it.

There are a wide variety of microchip brands available on the market today and as a result issues of microchip compatibility may exist between different brands of microchips and microchip scanners. Although the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is working to develop a method of universal microchip reading ability between the brands, some compatibility issues may still exist today. Your veterinarian and local animal shelter should be able to provide guidance about which microchip would be best for your pet.

Despite the compatibility issues, the use of a microchip can be a valuable tool if your pet were to run away from home. There have even been cases where microchips have even been used to prove the identity of a purebred pet that was stolen out of a yard or home. Microchipping has become commonplace for owners of dogs, cats, exotic pets, horses, and even some valuable cattle and swine. In fact, the benefits of microchipping are such that the majority of animal shelters and humane societies around the country microchip every animal that is adopted out of their facilities.

"Every clinic has their success stories of reuniting owners with lost pets. Each year at my clinic we see on average six to eight stray animals, the majority of these have no visible means of identification," says Dr. Brummet. "There is always a big sigh of relief from us all at the clinic when a number pops up on the scanner; that number means that at least this one pet will be brought home again."

For more information on microchipping contact your local veterinarian or animal shelter.