Pet Microchips 101
By Karen Vitale
When it comes to ensuring the health, safety, and quick return of your beloved pet should they ever go missing, the experts agree: Microchips are a no-brainer.
According to a 2009 study of over 7,000 strays in 53 animal shelters, microchipped dogs were over twice as likely, and microchipped cats over 20 times more likely to be reunited with their families, compared with reunion rates for unchipped animals.
While there’s no arguing with these statistics, ’no-brainer‘ is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to pet microchipping. There’s actually plenty to know about these tiny radio transmitters. And it’s easy to understand why some pet parents may feel overwhelmed by the thought of entrusting their pet’s safe return to a tiny, almost invisible piece of tech...one they may never even see.
Everything you need to know: Microchipping 101
But microchips are hardly the mystery some pet parents believe them to be. Armed with the facts and some expert insight, it’s clear to see that a pet’s microchip could one day mean the difference between a lost pet staying lost or being found, scanned, and quickly returned home.
So here’s everything pet parents need to know about getting, registering, and properly maintaining a pet’s microchip, but may be afraid to ask...including a deeper dive into potential microchip mistakes that could put pets at risk.
What is a pet microchip?
Beyond the oft-repeated fact that microchips are “no bigger than a grain of rice,” what else should pet parents know about this super-small, super-important link between pets and their parents?
First off, let’s talk tech. Microchips rely on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, capable of transmitting information -- in this case, the unique microchip number that connects you to your pet -- over radio waves.
That information is stored on a silicon microchip linked to a coiled copper wire antenna, all contained within a tiny glass capsule about the size of...you guessed it, a grain of rice. Think of this small but mighty microchip as a pet’s perfectly secure personal ID number. It’s self-contained, can never be lost, never expires, and lasts the lifespan of the pet.
How do pets get microchipped?
If you adopted your pet from a shelter or rescue organization, it’s likely that your pet is already chipped. Most shelters require pets to be chipped prior to adoption. And many partner with lost pet recovery experts like 24PetWatch -- which supplies microchips and scanners to over 4000 shelters, rescue and clinics in the US and Canada -- to ensure pets arrive in their new home with a microchip already in place. But it always pays to double-check and confirm whether your adopted pet is chipped.
If that’s not the case, a trained veterinarian or veterinary technician can implant the microchip, using a sterilized hypodermic slightly larger than a standard vaccine to implant the microchip in the loose skin just between your pet’s shoulder blades.
How exactly do microchips work?
Here’s the interesting thing about microchips: Because they have no battery or energy source, they spend most of their time doing...nothing. Not transmitting, definitely not tracking. Simply waiting patiently until called upon to reveal information about a pet when it’s needed most.
That can only happen when the chip is activated by an electromagnetic scanner, such as the ones used by veterinarians, shelters and animal control offices. The current from the scanner “wakes up” the chip, which then sends its info through the antenna and back to the scanner via radio waves, where it can be read and interpreted as a number.
Here’s the most important thing to know about microchips: On its own, that number is useless. It won’t help any lost pet get back home unless a pet parent links their name and current contact info to the number in a microchip registry database.
There are a variety of registries to choose from. Many pet parents choose to register on multiple registries, but that can become a hassle when it comes to updating your contact information. All it takes is one outdated phone number or email address and that crucial link between you and your lost pet is broken.
At 24PetWatch, registering your pet’s microchip number is free. You can do it yourself on the 24PetWatch Pet Registry Portal or by calling 1-866-597-2424 to work directly with a Pet Registry Specialist. Best of all, if your pet ever goes missing, you can take immediate action by filing a missing pet report, which searches for your pet’s microchip ID in their nationwide database of found pets.
Will it hurt my pet?
Every animal is different, of course. But most veterinary experts agree that the microchipping procedure is quick, simple and relatively painless.
“Most animals react just like they would react to a vaccine, with minimal discomfort, especially if they're distracted with a treat,” said Cathy Barnette, DVM. “The needle that we use to administer a microchip is similar to the needles that we use to administer vaccines, just larger. We often recommend microchipping pets while they're anesthetized for their spay or neuter surgery, to minimize the risk of causing any discomfort. But even wide-awake pets tolerate microchipping remarkably well.”
If you know your pet has a lower threshold for pain or discomfort, Barnette recommends talking with your veterinarian ahead of time about pain medication options.
Are microchips safe?
Any time a foreign object is implanted in the body, there’s always the chance of rejection or medical complications. But according to a report released by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association’s Microchip Advisory Group (MAG), such complications are very rare.
Of the roughly 4 million microchips MAG tracked since 1996, only .009% were associated with any adverse reactions.
“Although no medical intervention is entirely risk-free, the health risks associated with microchips appear to be extremely low,” says Barnette. “A number of veterinary associations, including the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, have conducted investigations and found no evidence to suggest that microchips pose a significant health risk.”
These very rare complications include migration, inflammation, infection, abscess formation and tumor formation. Yet the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) asserts that “… the risk that your animal will develop cancer due to its microchip is very, very low and is far outweighed by the improved likelihood that you will get your animal back if it becomes lost.”
Microchip mistakes & misconceptions
Despite all the benefits that come with microchips, a surprising percentage of chipped pets remain unregistered. One study of 53 animal shelters showed that of all the animals with microchips, only 58% were properly registered. The remaining 42% showed no contact information associated with their microchips, making it impossible to reunite them with their families.
So what’s behind the registration resistance?
Some pet parents mistake microchips for GPS trackers, believing the chips transmit location instead of information that needs to be linked to a registration. According to Barnette, some people also find all the options around microchip registries confusing.
“I wish people realized how simple and straightforward microchipping is,” says Barnette. “I think some people get hung up on the annual memberships offered by microchip providers and are worried about that cost.”
While annual memberships are an appealing option for some pet owners, they are not a requirement, so don’t let that stand in the way of keeping your pet safe. First, register your microchip for free, then take your time and decide if you want to invest in additional protection services like those offered by 24Petwatch.
Why should I get my pet microchipped?
Every year, millions of pets go missing, leaving families distraught and pets potentially at risk. A properly implanted, registered and maintained microchip boosts your chances of recovering your pet immeasurably -- whether they wander down the street, or end up in a shelter the next state over.
“I have been involved in several cases in which pets were reunited with their owners due to a microchip,” says Barnette. “In many of these cases, someone found a dog running loose in their neighbourhood and brought it into the clinic specifically to have the dog scanned for a microchip. In one case, we found the microchip while performing a new pet exam on a dog that someone had recently found as a stray...Fortunately, the client gave me permission to reach out to the original owner and we were able to reunite the dog with its family.”
Karen Vitale is a long-time writer, creator and animal lover whose work has been featured everywhere from Disney Studios to The Smithsonian Institutions.