Stolen pets and microchip regulation: What's a veterinarian to do?

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: June 05, 2019
Published: February 28, 2011
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Wow. Sad, right? I thought you would think so.

Even as you have proof positive that your dog has been stolen — your neighbor saw someone open your gate and put her in their car — and even though she's got a microchip, there's almost no way that microchip is going to help you. There's no way to get her back. Right?

Well … maybe you will. If you're creative, like the fax's sender. But usually not in cases of theft.

After all, no one asks a vet to check the microchip number on the dog they just stole. They probably don't even know it has a microchip if they pet-nabbed it from a yard. And a veterinarian doesn't cross-reference every microchip number with an owner's name and digits. That'd be an onerous add-on to a very busy day, and not very fruitful given that most microchips are unregistered or mis-registered to pet shops and shelters.

But that didn't keep yesterday’s e-mailer from wishing there could be another way.

Almost every day I get letters asking whether I'd be willing to address a specific topic. Based on my current lineup (science-y, touchy-feely or political, as the case may be) and the available space, I'll try to fit it in somehow. In this case, the question just happened to coincide with my colleague’s flyer.

Some years ago, I heard about a pair of dogs (I believe they were huskies), that had been stolen from the owner/breeder. The dogs were searched for; rewards were posted, all to no avail. But, a year or two later, a vet who was treating the dogs happened to scan them for microchips and discovered that the person who had taken the dogs to him/her for treatment might not be the owner. Thankfully, there was a happy ending, and the dogs were reunited with their original owner. (Or, so the story goes.)

My question is: DO vets regularly check for microchips in the pets taken to them for treatment? And, if so, if it should it turn out that the pet they are treating doesn't belong to the individual who brought them in, would the vet contact the owner listed in the microchip registry, or at the very least, contact the registry service to determine who the owner really is?

This is a big concern of mine, because microchips are great, but they serve virtually no purpose if the pets aren't scanned for them. I know that shelters regularly scan all pets for microchips nowadays, but if vets aren't doing so, there are probably thousands of pets that aren't being reunited with their rightful owners.

I see this as an ethical issue, and feel it is the obligation of vets to scan all pets when they are treated. I would expect this of my vet, and if I was a vet I would do the same. After all, if you were treating a pet for an ailment, particularly if the ailment will entail a costly procedure, and it turns out the person presenting the pet is not the owner, wouldn't you want the true owner to have the option of having their pet cared for?

My pets are all microchipped. They also have collars with tags, but they've often lost their collars while out romping on our farm. I'd like to feel that if one of them wandered just a little off our property and someone picked them up, or if someone outright stole them, I'd have some chance of getting them back.

I realize that some states have laws (I think Arkansas is one of them, unless they've recently changed their laws) stating that pets found wandering may be picked up by anyone, and that person has a right to claim that pet as their own. I find this very unsettling. Even if pets are considered chattel (which in most states they are), what gives someone the right to claim my property as theirs? If I parked my car down the road, that doesn't give someone the right to take it! That would be a crime. Taking a pet should be a crime as well, unless it can be proven that the person who took the pet was only trying to care for the pet while locating the owner.

While this is a dilemma that I hope states will address, in the meantime, I'd like to believe that vets are scanning every pet that comes into their clinic, so that at least some lost/stolen pets can be returned to their rightful owners.

What is your take on this, and how do your subscribers feel about this? I'd sure like to know.

Here was my answer:

I have treated this one before but I'll be happy to revisit it here. The problem comes in with the enforcement of rightful ownership status. We check microchips to be sure the animal is protected in case of loss, not to assess ownership status. Only in cases where we suspect a problem would we call the microchip registry to check on the ownership. But even then, it's a tough call. Only if we suspected the dog actually belonged to a specific other person would that info prove helpful (i.e., a reason to call law enforcement).

After which I got to thinking I'd been somewhat curt in my reply. And after the whole flyer thing, I'd felt doubly bad; hence this treatment of the subject. And why I now feel the need to ask you:

How do you feel? Do you expect your veterinarian to be proactive about pet identification in a regulatory capacity? Do you want your vet to be more proactive? What's a vet to do?

Dr. Patty Khuly

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