If we lived in a utopian society full of love for its animal brethren and replete with respect for the human-animal relationships it enjoys, all pets would be microchipped with the same technology. Readers to detect these microchips would have been distributed long ago to every facility responsible for reuniting lost pets with their loving owners. And no commercial engine would intervene to hinder the microchipping system — currently the best one known to reunite man and beast.

Because we live in 21st century Earth, however, technology often has a way of taking a backseat to our commercial ways. It’s a price we all pay for the benefits of capitalism and private enterprise. So it is that while every microchip ever installed under an animal’s skin is theoretically detectible (there it is!) and readable (those are her identifying numbers), commercial conditions have conspired to keep Fluffy’s electronic safety-feature concealed in a depressingly sizable percentage of cases.

As I intimated in the last installment of this series, it would seem (to me and to any sane person) that the only tool you'd need to deal with the confusing issue of multiple-technology microchipping is a reader that can both detect and read all kinds of chips. We have the technology in the guise of a “universal” reader (aka “scanner”) that can detect and read both 125 and 134.2 kHz microchips, including the encrypted chips (I'll get to that soon).

As you might have guessed, however, knowing we can do something in theory doesn’t mean we can get it done in the real world. Given the past actions some microchip companies have taken to (1) effectively conceal the presence of other companies’ chips; (2) limit the ability of other companies to read their own chips; and )3) legally or commercially interfere to restrict public access to universal readers, it’s clear that real world commercial machinations often trump technology and the public's demand for best practices.

Here’s the scoop:

Historically, microchip readers have been distributed by microchip companies. That’s how most shelters and vet hospitals come to have them. One reader lasts more than a dog’s age, so most facilities have no incentive to actually purchase something they received free of charge (and will continue to receive free of charge should they ask the company for a replacement).

Yes, any vet or shelter may now purchase a new, so-called "universal" reader. But these readers are sufficiently expensive, reader-replacement sufficiently inconvenient, and the impetus for doing so sufficiently obscure, that most microchip-reading facilities do not feel compelled to change out their scanners for an upgraded model.

Still, it’s only very recently (2007) that universal readers have come to be marketed stateside, though the technology has been around for years. One company with long-time access to this technology is AVID.

AVID, first-mover in the pet microchip market, encrypted its microchip information so that only facilities with an AVID reader could both detect the chip and read the pet’s identifying digits. You might think that’s because AVID has superior technology … but it’s not. It’s so they could maintain their lead in the game when other players wanted in … by making sure their reader was the most universal available.

Predictably, HomeAgain (the second entrant to the market) did not encrypt its chip information. Otherwise, all those vets and shelters already equipped with AVID readers would have to get a HomeAgain reader — not a barrier this new player wished to impose on its potential customers.

(Stay with me now...)

Recap: HomeAgain readers can tell that there’s a chip of the same technology under a pet’s skin but it just says “AV” on the reader. But AVID readers can read the exact number for HomeAgain and AVID chips. That makes it one step easier to get AVID-bearing pets back home. AVID essentially adds an extra layer to the process for HomeAgain’s readers — which makes it one step harder for pets to be reunited with their owner if they use HomeAgain's.

(I told you this would be complicated — and disgusting.)

AVID even manufactured and distributed a reader (in 2006!) that couldn’t even detect the presence of HomeAgain microchips, much less a pet’s ID numbers. Many vets and shelters that received these readers weren’t even aware that HomeAgain chips wouldn’t be detected (or read). Sure, it says so on the packaging, but that doesn’t translate to effective user-understanding.

How many shelters euthanized HomeAgain-chipped pets after this 2006 reader’s introduction? How many AVID-equipped shelters and vets even know that the reader currently in their hands can’t identify a HomeAgain-chipped pet at all? Dunno. AVID doesn’t say how many they distributed; only that they did and that they still offer this marvelous tool.

AVID also markets a reader outside the US for ISO (134.2) chips. Its website also lists a universal scanner (which detects but doesn't read the ISO chip). AVID's universal scanner doesn't read ISO chips' numbers (in spite of AVID's ability to make it so) and, furthermore, fails to include any ISO detection on its routinely distributed readers. AVID claims it takes longer for chips to be read by universal scanners and therefore aren't “safe” to use. How to establish the veracity of this statement is beyond me since they haven’t answered my emails on getting one of these babies. (For the record, I finally found the universal scanner on an independent pet supply distributor's site — the universal scanner retails for $390).

The fact that there’s a solution to this dilemma in the form of a universal reader (whose optimization and distribution are apparently being withheld from the market for transparently protectionist tactics) is what’s most distressing to me.

The fact that AVID has held this technology for years frustrates me further—especially in light of their legal action against Banfield, “…for the unsafe use of a chip that can’t be detected by the existing infrastructure,” when they’re the number-one offender to pet safety in the industry. After all, who created the unsafe infrastructure to begin with? Who propagates its limitations with encrypted chips? And who’s got the ultimate power to ensure that safety? Three guesses.

You might wonder: How many vets know about these pet-unsafe competitive tactics? My vet colleagues at work don’t even know why our HomeAgain reader comes up “AV” (sans-digits). The microchip companies haven’t exactly broadcast their tactics. Sure, it’s been in the vet news but, as with faraway wars in Africa, that kind of info mostly flies under our busy-vet radars. Factor in the level of convolution on the technology and the boredom of legal maneuvering and this is one issue most vets gloss over entirely (myself included — until very recently).

The fact that real competition isn’t possible in our historically closed system means not only that pets won’t get back home again but also ensures that microchip prices will remain unduly high, leading to fewer protected pets and greater costs for cash-strapped shelters.

AVID should be ashamed. HomeAgain (and its Schering-Plough distributor) should also be called out for its reliance on AVID as big-bully protector (Burger King to its McDonalds). Banfield, on the other hand, can be lauded for its attempts to introduce real competition (but they get a solid “D” in execution).

It’s not the need to maintain an American standard that’s required in this market, it’s the very American desire to want as open and competitive a system as possible, especially when we’re not talking fast-food pricing, computer operating system availability or car distribution — this is about safety.

My assessment? AVID and HomeAgain’s protection of the market has put our ugly-American, robber-barron tactics on display for all the world to marvel at. And the AVID/HomeAgain duopoly still claims “patent protection” while the public (and the rest of the pet industry!) clamor for “pet protection.” Three guesses as to which group holds the moral higher ground.

Next up: The (very recent) good news in the microchip wars and where that leaves the responsible, safety-minded pet owners among us.