New company aspires to clean up pet microchip mess

Gaps in the identification system targeted

Published: August 26, 2009
By Edie Lau

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A group of pet-loving entrepreneurs and engineers in California’s Silicon Valley has started a business directed at correcting flaws in the field of microchip identification.

The company, called Chloe Standard, wants to streamline the process of finding a stray pet’s owner, and increase the chances that a chip implanted under the animal’s skin can actually be detected, read and used.

Gaps in microchip identification services are a long-standing problem, and well understood in some companion-animal circles. But most pet owners have no idea, and their veterinarians may or may not know about the problem in detail. Owners are urged simply to have microchips placed in their pets so that the animals may be returned quickly and safely should they become lost or run away.

What they’re not typically told is that a person who reads a pet’s chip may not be able to access the animal’s identifying information without having to call multiple competing registries. And that even then, in rare cases, they may have trouble finding the owner’s whereabouts. Nor are pet owners necessarily told that a given scanner may be incapable of reading an individual animal’s chip. Even the best scanners — including those touted as “universal” — miss some chips.

The root of the trouble is not flawed technology, but business interests, patent protection and politics. “We need a new word for ‘can of worms,’ because it doesn’t begin to describe this (situation),” said Olivia Sadlowski, founder and CEO of Chloe Standard, who named the company for her pug Chloe, a shelter adoptee.

Sadlowski stumbled into the world of microchips through an exchange with an online group of local pug aficionados. Someone had picked up a stray pug with no collar, and posted a query: what to do? Among the replies that flowed in, one asked if the pug was chipped; another noted the need for a scanner to find out.

A volunteer with several shelters in her area, Sadlowski offered to round up a scanner. “One of the shelters said, ‘Well, this scanner only reads a certain type of chip, and if this dog has a different chip, it won’t read anything,’ ” Sadlowski recounted. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ That started an intensive, almost-six months of researching, finding out all the problems of microchipping.”

(The lost dog, meantime, was quickly reunited with its owner after the owner walked down the street calling its name. No scanning necessary.)

Sadlowski, who’s built a career working with Silicon Valley startups, started Chloe Standard with other pet owners and advocates, some of them engineers. One of the company’s goals is to make scanners more accessible to the public by placing them in locations that are open for longer hours than veterinary offices and shelters. The details are still under development.

The company also hopes to start a national campaign on microchip awareness. The message to pet owners would be to have their pets scanned regularly to be sure the chips are readable, to remember to register the chips and make sure the registry information is up-to-date.

As a first step toward building a more coherent microchip identification system, the company on Tuesday introduced a beta version of an Internet search engine, that matches microchip codes to their respective manufacturers. Anyone who scans an animal now can type in the resulting code and learn in moments which database likely holds information on the animal’s owner, potentially eliminating the need to call around to multiple registries.

The search tool does not encompass the world of microchip databases, only six that operate in the United States. For a small fraction of animals that may be outfitted with chips from and registered in another country, the tool will produce a “no match” result.

That’s what would have happened with Dr. Shiri Hoshen’s Afghan Hound, which was born in the Netherlands and implanted with a microchip made by Virbac, a French company that does not sell chips or maintain a registry in the United States. 

“The American chip manufacturers don’t use a common database, so if he is lost and found, there is no domestic Virbac number that the finder can call,” lamented Hoshen in a message she posted on a Veterinary Information Network (VIN) discussion board in May.

“It seems like the best bet,” Hoshen went on, “is to register him with all the American microchip databases. #@$%&*^!!! Is this what you advise clients who have dogs with Virbac or other non-U.S. supported chips?” Hoshen, who practices in Santa Fe, N.M., had already implanted an American chip in her dog. She ultimately solved her dilemma by removing the European chip.

Sadlowski said Chloe Standard may try to incorporate foreign chip registries in time. She noted that Europe already has its own Internet search tool,

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has been working separately since late last year on another one-stop microchip registry search tool. AAHA spokesman Jason Merrihew said the association is at the point of trying to secure signed agreements with “all the major players.” He said the tool may debut this fall.

Concerned about duplicating efforts, Sadlowski said she tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to reach AAHA’s point person on the project, Dr. Janice Trumpeter. Sadlowski made contact with Merrihew this week, and they agreed to discuss whether the parties could collaborate. “The last thing we want to do is replicate the process and complicate it with competing solutions,” Sadlowski said.

She added that one advantage her company has in coming to the issue as outsiders of the pet and veterinary industries is that it brings no baggage.

"We are not involved in politics and have no associations with any group,” she said. “We work for pet owners and for shelters to help pet owners. Period.”

The microchip problem is peculiarly American. An international standard for microchips exists and is in use in most countries around the world, but the majority of chips implanted in American pets — amounting to an estimated 8 million to 16 million live animals — do not conform to the international standard.

The confusion and gaps in pet microchipping evolved over years as the technology caught on in the companion-animal world. Initially, the chips, which emit radio signals detectable by special scanners, were used extensively in inanimate objects such as merchandise, as well as in livestock, according to Dr. Walter Ingwersen, a veterinarian in Ontario, Canada.

Microchipping spread to pets by the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that point, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), a non-governmental agency based in Geneva, Switzerland, which develops open standards for globally important technology, turned its attention to the rice-grain-sized devices.

By then, various patent-protected technologies were on the market. Chips operated on differing radio-frequencies. Some were encrypted; some were not. Scanners could detect and read some chips, but not others.

At the outset, all the major players participated with the ISO, among them, representatives of the United States, which had voting rights; and microchip manufacturers — including market leaders American Veterinary Identification Devices (AVID) and Destron Fearing (now Digital Angel Corp., whose chips are distributed under the Schering-Plough Corp. brand name HomeAgain) — which participated as non-voting advisers, according to Ingwersen, a Canadian representative in the discussions.

But talks broke down for the group as a whole. Tom Sharp, CEO of the non-profit American Kennel Club’s Companion Animal Recovery service (AKC CAR), summarized the outcome this way:

“My understanding is that some of the U.S. companies objected for various reasons, some for technology and some for business reasons. They said, ‘Your (proposed) standard violates our patent. If you bring that standard into the U.S., we will take it to court.’ So the Europeans went their way and the Americans went their own way.”

That led to development of an international standard based on a radio frequency different from those of prevailing chips in the United States. Here, the predominant signal has been 125 kHz for both encrypted (produced by AVID) and unencrypted chips. ISO went with 134.2 kHz.

Explained Ingwersen: “There was a proposal to make the standard based on an unencrypted 125 kHz but there was a lack of consensus (and) support by the manufacturers, who felt this would favor one manufacturer over another. As a result, a completely ‘new’ communication frequency was the only acceptable compromise, as it meant a compromise by all concerned.”

Established in 1996, the ISO guidelines have been accepted by Asia, Australia, Canada and Europe, according to a report by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

The United States has not adopted the ISO standard or any other, although the American National Standards Institute, a non-profit organization that coordinates voluntary standards in the private sector, has endorsed the ISO guidelines. The United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service looked into the issue and concluded in 2007 that it wasn’t authorized to mandate a national standard for pet microchips or scanners.

Early efforts to bring ISO-compliant chips to this country had heart-breaking consequences. In one notorious case, a lost puppy that was implanted with an ISO-compliant chip introduced by Banfield veterinary clinics in 2004 was euthanized because the shelter where he ended up did not check him with a scanner that could read that chip’s radio frequency.

Ingwersen said the case temporarily chilled efforts to bring the United States in line with the international standard. Then, over the next few years, manufacturers developed so-called universal scanners designed to detect chips operating at any of several frequencies.

That development, however, complicated the situation in that more disparate chips entered the market. In addition to ISO 134.2-kHz chips coming in, AKC CAR began in 2007 to distribute chips made by Trovan Electronic Identification Devices Ltd. that operate on 128 kHz.

Sharp said AKC CAR did not purposely set out to promote a chip that uses yet another radio frequency; rather, the organization liked the Trovan product, which happened to operate on 128 kHz.

Meanwhile, numerous veterinary and animal advocacy groups — namely, AVMA, AAHA, the World Small Animal Veterinary Medical Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals — called for implementation of the ISO standard.

AVID, a leader in the U.S. pet microchipping market, is heavily invested in 125-kHz chips and has staunchly resisted the call.

Dr. Dan Knox, who is responsible for AVID’s companion animal services, said switching to the ISO standard would put pets at risk.

“What we have is a 125 (kHz) system that is very well supported,” Knox said. “It has worked, and does work, very well. ... We don’t want to see that compromised.”

He disagreed with the premise that the system in this country is significantly flawed. “There are over 3,000 calls a day to the microchip recovery systems in America (about) animals that are found with microchips either at a veterinary clinic or an animal shelter,” Knox said. “These people are calling the various registries to track that microchip, so it’s a system that works, and pets get home by the thousands every week, literally.”

Unlike AVID, Schering-Plough, another leader in the American pet microchip market, advocates following the international standard. Through its HomeAgain business unit, the company began in July 2008 to sell an ISO-compliant 134.2-kHz chip. At the same time, it continues to offer a 125-kHz chip. HomeAgain Director Gary MacPhee acknowledged that offering two different chips does not end the confusion or close gaps in service, at least not in the short term.

Schering-Plough’s thinking was this, he said: “Let’s begin to support these associations in driving a convergence to a new standard, at the same time recognizing there may be entities that don’t offer ISO infrastructure (such as scanners that can detect ISO chips) yet.”

MacPhee said that while the majority of pets sporting HomeAgain chips are outfitted with 125-kHz devices, the company’s sales today are split evenly between the two options.

“Long term, how do you stop the madness?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, you move to a true global standard.”

Until then, microchipped pets may continue slipping through the gaps.

An analysis last year of scanner sensitivity by Dr. Linda Lord, an assistant professor at The Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, found that of four scanners tested, the one that did the best job detecting six different brands of chips operating at any of three frequencies was the HomeAgain scanner. Its sensitivity ranged from 93.6 percent to 98.4 percent, depending on the chip brand.

Sensitivity of a scanner made by Bayer (called ResQ) ranged from 88.2 percent to 98.4 percent. AKC’s scanner sensitivity ranged from 66.6 percent to 98.9 percent. AVID’s scanner sensitivity was in the high 90s but only for 125 kHz chips; it didn’t detect chips operating at other frequencies. (The company sells a more expensive “universal” scanner, but Lord tested its most widely used device. AKC CAR also has since introduced another scanner that Sharp says works better.)

Lord pointed out that, standard or no standard, no technology is 100 percent accurate.

It’s a point that Dr. Sarah Johnson wishes the manufacturers would do a better job highlighting.

A practitioner in Westfield, N.Y., Johnson expressed her frustrations this spring on a VIN discussion board about scanner and chip incompatibilities.

“We use AVID microchips, but just bought a couple of ResQ scanners because several of the neighboring practices are implanting those chips, and the AVID reader won’t get them,” she wrote. “The ResQ scanner is supposed to be universal.

“We are having problems with the ResQ scanner missing AVID chips. We find them easily with the AVID scanner, and can’t find them at all with the ResQ, even with hovering over the site after we find it with the AVID scanner. ... My techs are seriously unimpressed.”

In an interview, Johnson said that since the clinic began using the ResQ scanner this spring, it has missed perhaps a dozen AVID chips — not a lot, she said, but the fact that it misses any troubles her.

“I expect them to read them all,” Johnson said. “If (the manufacturers) know there’s a gap, they should reveal that.”

One risk of the ongoing chip problem is that the public may lose faith in the technology altogether. “I think if people think that their chips aren’t going to be read, they’re not likely to implant them,” Johnson said.

Lord’s concern is that veterinarians will become equally disenchanted. “I worry that the veterinary world is going to write it off,” she said.

Or be blamed, Ingwersen said. “The companies are a few steps removed (from the public),” he said. “People don’t get mad at them. They get mad at the veterinarians.”

Hoshen, the practitioner who had to deal with her Afghan Hound’s European chip, said that despite her experience, she supports microchipping. “I think (even with) the problems, it’s better than not being chipped,” she said.

To her mind, pet owners need to understand that chipping is not fail-safe.

“We tell people when we chip (their pets), pretend that your dog doesn’t have a chip when it gets lost. It may not get picked up by the scanner, or the dog might be found by someone who’s too lazy to scan the dog,” she said. “If there’s no chip, it’s not going to work. If there’s a chip, it might work.”

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