Managing the microchip mess

And the menace of unchecked free market rivalry

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By Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA

If you’re a semineurotic pet owner like me, you’ll have microchipped all your pets by now.

But even if your policy has gone the way of the cobbler’s kids shoes, you’ll have implanted thousands of these tiny bioglass-coated RFID devices into your patients. Because, as we all know by now (if not from experience then from the research), microchips help reunite lost pets with their families.

But as we’ve also undoubtedly learned, microchips are imperfect. They’re often unreliable for a variety of reasons, most of which we’ve experienced personally in our practices:

  • Scanners sometimes fail to detect microchips.
  • Scanners sometimes detect microchips they can’t read.
  • Microchips are often unregistered, registered to former owners (or animal hospitals, breeders and shelters), or attached to incorrect or outdated information.
  • Microchips may succumb to technical difficulties. They can outright fail to transmit their digits or migrate (albeit more rarely than you might think, according to the literature).

Optimists that we are, veterinarians are likely to focus on the positives. We know these devices work. For minimal profits (if any), we work hard to convey their merits on a daily basis. And we celebrate every microchip reunion as if it were a personal victory.

Which it is. Microchips could not have made it this far in our culture were it not for our indefatigable efforts to market, implant and scan for these devices. We, and the shelters that accompany us in this crusade, are these pets’ true heroes.

Unfortunately, I can’t say as much for those who manufacture, distribute and register this technology in the United States. Time and again, U.S. microchip manufacturers and marketeers have proved that winning market share and turning a profit means more than protecting pets.

If you’ve paid any attention to this industry’s machinations over the years, you’ll have learned a few things:

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No. 1. By design, ours has been an isolated system.

Since 1996, the U.S. microchip industry has historically rejected the global standard in microchipping, staunchly refusing to adopt the ISO standard agreed upon by the rest of the microchipping world (Canada, Asia, Australia and the European Union) and advancing its own fragmented system of technology instead. This in spite of strong pro-ISO sentiment in the veterinary and welfare communities.

No. 2. Differing technologies and a poisonous competitive atmosphere have fueled further market fragmentation and confusion.

A history of acrimonious competition brought us unreadable chips, brand-specific scanners and a petulant refusal to adopt one unifying technology, ISO or otherwise. Things got so bad that it took an antitrust lawsuit to finally enjoin the industry to “universalize” the system in 2008. Unfortunately, this mandate has been interpreted in a very limited way, primarily via so-called “universal” scanners that many of us still do not employ.

No. 3. The industry’s convoluted registration system is its weakest link.

In opposition to efforts by the AVMA, AAHA, WSAVA, ASPCA and others, the industry continues to complicate and confound veterinarians and consumers alike via a Byzantine registration system — one that typically bundles befuddling and questionably effective features (along with annual fees) with initial registration.

What’s more, the industry has largely maintained its bullheaded resistance to one single unified database. Though AAHA created one it hoped would serve this purpose, its work was undermined by registries that either refused to share their precious data or that fail to inform finders that a more complete database exists.

Quick story: This latter sin was recently committed by HomeAgain when it failed to inform me that one of my foundlings, despite bearing a HomeAgain microchip, might possibly be registered elsewhere. (His chip was registered with FoundAnimals and AAHA’s microchip lookup tool quickly identified it. The moral of this story is to, one, always check AAHA’s database and, two, never rely on private data alone.)

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Given all the roadblocks, detours and orange cones the industry has erected in the name of “healthy competition,” the microchip industry has distinguished itself for frolicking with the most consumer unfriendly of the veterinary landscape’s players.

Yes, it’s a mess.

Each of these points represents untold thousands of pets that couldn’t be reunited with their owners — all because they got caught in the cracks of our free-market microchip morass, a busted system seemingly designed to advance corporate interests over getting pets home again.

Indeed, I’d warrant that if our clients understood it better, the U.S. microchip system might engender some well-deserved distrust. But in so doing, it would almost certainly blow back on us for our failure to convey its flaws and rip them out by their roots.

After all, we’re the ones pet owners put their trust in. We’re the ones who recommend these things so unreservedly.

In our leadership’s defense, however, it has openly — if quietly — opposed the microchip industry. And it has tried — albeit unsuccessfully — to reform it.

Thing is, each time we veterinarians attempt to effect reform (including whenever I write about this in public), we’re warned that our efforts might put our clients off microchips altogether. That would be bad for pets. And we wouldn’t want be responsible for standing between pets and their safety, now would we?

Which is why, time and again, veterinarians have caved to this industry’s manipulative tactics.

Thankfully, the industry’s largest rivals appear to be taking their last breaths in an atmosphere of unchallenged market dominance. The trouble is, these particular drowning men have shown they’re willing to take as many souls as they can down with them. And, true to form in this 20-year-old farce, it’s up to us to hand out the life vests.

Originally published in the November 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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