Microchips dump legal, ethical baggage on veterinarians

AVMA attempts to shed light on gray areas of pet identification

Published: January 07, 2009
By Jennifer Fiala

St. Martinville, La. — When Dr. Jackie Simon was asked to perform surgery on a microchipped spay with vaginal prolapse due to hyperplasia, she faced a tough decision: wait to get permission from the person who registered the chip or fulfill the new owner’s request to do the procedure.

In the end, Simon went ahead with the repair and put herself on the line for the dog’s health, despite her lawyer's warning of possible legal ramifications. She also talked her client into contacting the microchip registrant, who could not be reached after multiple attempts to make a connection.

Once rare, scenarios like this now appear more commonplace, and they don’t always have happy endings. Recently, an associate lost her job after contacting a microchip registrant despite a client’s pleas to ignore the information and the practice owner’s decision to honor the new owner’s wishes. The act, which eventually solved an ownership dispute, raises the following question: Do veterinarians have a legal or ethical duty to scan for microchips and contact owners of record, and if so, what is their obligation to the client presenting the animal?

“There’s a very big gray zone when it comes to microchips and the responsibility of veterinarians dealing with them,” Simon says. “It would be nice to have some guidelines because, oftentimes, there’s no way for a veterinarian to win in situations like this.

“Most veterinarians wouldn’t hesitate to track a rabies tag down,” she adds. “What’s the difference between that and a microchip?”

Recently, an American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) task force attempted to answer such questions with revisions to the group’s microchip policy, passed by the Executive Board in November. Among the modifications, the policy now advises veterinarians to ID patients prior to performing medical or surgical treatment and encourages practitioners to scan every animal presented.

As for ownership disputes, AVMA policy shies away from establishing an absolute duty to get involved by leaving it up to a DVM’s “professional judgment.” Still, it advises practitioners to ask for ownership documentation in suspicious cases and to require it before removing a microchip.

“We don’t want to make veterinarians cops, but if there are red flags, a vet should ask for proof of ownership,” says Adrian Hochstadt, JD, CAE, assistant director for AVMA’s State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs. “We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about the various ethical issues pertaining to microchips, and there’s very little in terms of statutory or regulatory guidelines. This is an issue that can get really dicey. We want to be careful not to make legal duties too much of a burden on members.”

According to some veterinarians, various chip manufacturers already tout such obligations, advising that it’s “highly illegal” for a DVM to intentionally fail to report a microchipped pet and contact the owner of record. While AVID and 24PetWatch did not respond to VIN New Service interview requests, Schering-Plough Animal Health issued the following statement concerning its HomeAgain Microchip Identification System:

“We recommend vets consult the AVMA, (American Animal Hospital Association), other trade association of their choice, or their attorneys for guidance on this issue.”

Greg Dennis, legal counsel to the Kansas Veterinary Medical Association, backs that suggestion, yet he acknowledges that there’s little legal or regulatory precedence outlining a veterinarian’s obligation to scan and report patients. While researching the topic for a talk during last summer’s AVMA convention, Dennis discovered that the only regulatory action involving microchips stemmed from a case in Great Britain, where a veterinarian was disciplined for failing to scan for a microchip among other infractions.

Whether or not reporting a microchipped pet breaches veterinary-client privilege laws or there’s an ethical obligation to contact former owners hasn’t been spelled out yet, even within AVMA's revised policy, he says. The same goes for the argument that there’s a stolen property element to many of these cases.

“You can sit here and contemplate that the veterinarian is in possession of stolen property, but once again, you don’t know if the animal been stolen,” Dennis says. “This gets complicated in the law because people do abandon animals with microchips.”

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