Microchipping pets is a pretty simple process. A loaded syringe, a quick flick of the wrist...and voilá: A microchip bearing a series of digits has been “installed.”

It’s standard practice for microchips to make it inside your pet. Shelters do it. Pet shops are required to do it. And in some areas, breeders have to do it, too. Add to that population the growing percentage of pet owners who feel compelled to indelibly identify their pets and an entire industry is born (small though it may be). 

To contribute further to the adoption of microchips as means of identification, my local Veterinary Medical Association (full disclosure: I’m on the board) sponsors a microchip week every year in advance of hurricane season. Today through Friday, the clients of participating hospitals will be able to receive $25 microchips (down from the typical price of $40-$50).

Want to know why veterinarians talk up microchips so often? 

Consider that the vast majority of pets remanded to U.S. shelter care have no form of identification (microchip, tag or otherwise). Among these, less than 1% are ultimately reunited with their families. 

That’s why, as a public policy measure, most veterinarians (myself included) believe all pets should be microchipped. Out of concern for privacy and as a financial concession, it should nonetheless remain an individual’s personal choice whether to microchip their pet or not. Still, it’s my belief that every pet is best microchipped, whether you think your pet’s physical tag and indoor lifestyle is enough or not. Too many times I’ve heard pet owners bemoan a pet’s loss and wish they’d taken this extra step. 

Yet the identification of pets through microchips is not so widespread as some of us would like. Less than 10% of pets are reportedly microchipped. And the biggest reason? Not so much the “big brother” issues or the expense of it, but the apathy that inevitably affects products designed to ward of future, non-pressing issues (such as pet loss). 

A smaller but significant percentage of microchip non-users are those among you who, having researched the issue, prefer to stay away from microchips. You’ve read about the cancers caused by chips (very rare, by all accounts) or maybe you have no faith in the entire system of microchipping. “I’ll live with the “brick and mortar” tag, thank you very much.”

If you fall into this latter group you’re in good company. In fact, I’m one of those pet microchip advocates who has plenty of misgivings about the entire pet microchipping system. Like some of you, I worry about the following issues:

  • Even if I get a microchip implanted in my pet, what are the chances that a shelter or veterinarian will actually use a scanner to check him for it? 
  • What if a private individual finds him and doesn’t think to look for a microchip?
  • What if the person doing the scanning doesn’t do a thorough job of the search?
  • What if she’s gotten too fat for the microchip to be read?
  • And if the microchip migrates (to the elbow, for example)? What then?

And those are just tip-of-the-iceberg troubles with microchips. Even larger issues surround the following questions:

  • What if the scanner isn’t set to the right frequency to pick up a pet’s specific kind of microchip? If the shelter or vet doesn’t use a “universal” scanner or the pet’s microchip technology becomes obsolete the chip is useless.
  • All scanners are capable of missing microchips. Some microchips and scanners are more likely to suffer from this problem than others. Read a past post on this for more information. 
  • What if the pet’s owner doesn’t bother to register the chip? It’s great for shelters and pet shops to have to comply with mandatory microchipping regulations but it’s a waste of taxpayer and consumer money if pet owners don’t understand the necessity of tying the pet’s otherwise useless digits to their own contact information. 
  • Why is there no sort of national registry for microchips? The jockeying of so many microchip companies for market share is ultimately detracting from the greater efficiency of a comprehensive and easily navigated system of registration. 

It’s for all these reasons that a comprehensive set of guidelines is in order for microchips to actually achieve what their manufacturers and marketers say they do. If the goal is “no pet left behind,” then microchip industry players, veterinarians, shelters and pet advocacy groups will have to devise a comprehensive list of how to tackle the very real problems keeping pets from finding their way back home after loss.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in favor of microchips for every pet. But wider adoption is undoubtedly being hampered by the reluctance and ambivalence of those among us who are most likely to preach microchip awareness to the millions. 

Up next: My recommendations for a more workable system of microchip utilization. From veterinary hospitals to shelter workers and private pet owner compliance, I’ll include it all tomorrow. And stay tuned for more about what YOU can do to keep your pet's microchip in optimal working order.