From April 2016 it will become compulsory to microchip your dog. The government gives several reasons for this action, one of which is to help reunite lost and stolen dogs with their owners. However a closer look at the microchipping industry reveals gaping holes. I believe that these missing links must be closed and supporting legislation introduced if compulsory microchipping is to have a far-reaching positive effect.
I became aware of these yawning gaps in the microchipping industry when my good friend Alison lost her beautiful red Duck Tolling Retriever, Harvey. Utilising the power of social media Alison organised a county (and now country-wide) search for her much missed pet. She also put in desperate calls to several local vets, rescue services and dog wardens, which revealed some shocking truths about the microchipping industry.
Not all microchips are created equally
Are you under the impression that there is a single, UK-wide microchip database? There are in fact four: Petlog, Anibase, Pettrac and Petprotect. Of these, only Petlog and Anibase are members of the MAG (Microchipping Advice Group) Code of Practice as are their microchip manufacturers. Pettrac and Petprotect are not.
Each database provider also offers different services. A phone call confirmed that my own dog's database keep their records for just eight years before I have to renew my information and pay again. Some databases provide free phone lines for owners to report their pet lost or stolen and some charge. In many cases found dogs can be reported 24/7 but lost and stolen dogs can only be registered from 9-5 Monday - Friday, not great news if your dog goes missing on a Saturday. Do you know which database your pet is registered with? Or how long for?
Vets do not routinely scan dogs for microchips
Since owning my dogs I've moved home and changed their vet three times. Not once has either of them been scanned on a visit. Some vets claim that data protection issues prevent them from doing so whilst others say they don't have the time; or a microchip scanner in every treatment room. Whatever the reason, this is terrible news for owners of lost and stolen dogs. If your beloved pet is sold to a new owner, a trip to the vet won't necessarily result in your dog coming home. The new owner may have no idea they have purchased a stolen dog and without scanning for a microchip, neither will the vet.
When Alison lost Harvey her first port of call was to telephone every vet in the local area and ask them to keep an eye out. She was shocked to discover that the majority of practices she contacted did not routinely scan dogs. Without the total co-operation of vets, or statutory rules that require every vet to scan every dog each time it visits the surgery, compulsory microchipping will not help owners of lost dogs any more than the current system. This issue has not gone unnoticed and I'm fully behind the 'Vets get Scanning' campaign to get every vet practice in the UK to start scanning dogs on their first visit.
And neither do rescue centres, highway agencies or local councils
I recently came across a heart-breaking story about a dog that had been re-homed by a rescue centre in Norfolk, even though the owner had reported it lost. Whether through mistake or negligence, the centre did not scan the dog for a microchip, but wrongly assumed it had been abandoned and found it a new home. The dog's previous owner only became aware when they received a call from a vet who had discovered the dog's microchip and with it the details of their past owner. The vet cannot give the old owner the new owner's details because of data protection issues and the rescue centre won't share the details either.
A microchip has done neither the dog or either owner any favours in this case. Only if rescue centres, councils (who may put a dog to sleep after just seven days) and highways agencies are required by law to scan all dogs - found dead or alive - will compulsory microchipping help to reunite lost dogs and their original owners.
Microchip scanners may not pick up every microchip
Different vets use different databases, so if you have your dog chipped at a surgery in Essex and then move to Northumberland, chances are they will use a different database chip supplier. Whilst this doesn't seem like a big deal, not every vet surgery has a universal scanner. Some surgeries have older scanners that can only pick up one type of chip; some have two or three scanners and may need to try several to locate your dog's chip. But for me the real issue is this: even if a vet or rescue centre does have a universal scanner, they still have no idea if the dog has been reported lost or stolen.
Help is at hand though. A new microchip scanner called the 'Halo' not only boasts the capabilities of a universal scanner but also tells the vet or rescue warden if the chip number matches that of a dog reported lost or stolen. The scanner is charged via computer so it can update its information frequently. In order for compulsory microchipping to really benefit the owners of lost or stolen dogs it will be essential for every vet and rescue centre in the UK to own such a scanner.
A microchip is not proof of ownership
Whilst a microchip may be used as proof of a dog's identity it cannot be used as proof of ownership. Yep you read that right: if your dog is stolen and sold to a new owner you may be contacted to confirm that the dog used to be yours but you may not be able to get it back. Ever. Data protection issues can prevent vets, rescue centres, the police and even magistrates from disclosing your stolen pet's new whereabouts to you.
This is by far the most gaping hole in the microchipping industry. What is the point of having your dog microchipped if it doesn't help you to get them back? In a much publicised case in 2010, bricklayer Dave Moorhouse was contacted by Anibase three years after his Jack Russell Terrier, Rocky went missing. His dog was alive and well and the new owners had requested that the dogs microchip details be updated. Would Anibase give Mr Moorhouse the details of his dog's whereabouts? They would not. Disputes over dog ownerships are considered a civil matter which means that if the new owners don't want their details given out, the database has no legal obligation to do so.
Of course this works both ways and mistakes can be made. My friend Mandy recently re-homed a rescue dog called Leila. She had been scanned at the rescue centre and the old owner contacted. It turned out that the old owner had never lost her pet and that Leila's chip details were a copy of another dogs! Another friend, Nadia took her dog of five years to be chipped only to discover that he already had one. An agonizing five hour wait followed whilst the vet tried to trace her dog's previous owner. Happily for Nadia, her dog was confirmed as abandoned and she was able to take him home.
Do I agree with compulsory microchipping? Yes I do. Do I think it will make a difference to the thousands of lost and stolen dogs and their owners in the UK? Without a significant amount of supporting legislation and a change in attitude from vets and rescue centres, no I do not.
To help Alison to find Harvey, visit 'Lost Toller Harvey' on Facebook
To support the Vets Get Scanning campaign, visit www.vetsgetscanning.co.uk