When microchips muddle pet ownership status

Laws outdated; veterinarians caught in middle

Published: December 13, 2012
By Edie Lau

The day a new client brought in a friendly terrier mix she’d found as a stray, Dr. Meghan Ellis was just trying to do the right thing by scanning the dog for a microchip.

“Don’t worry about it,” Ellis assured the client, whose family liked the dog and was eager to keep him. “They never have microchips, and if they do, they don’t have a (registered) owner.”

But this fellow had a microchip. And the person to whom his chip was registered wanted him back.

The incident devolved into a messy conflict that Ellis, owner of Family Veterinary Hospital in Sanford, N.C., had not foreseen.

The situation was not unprecedented, however. Posts on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, show that similar conflicts have arisen for years, and the widespread adoption of microchip identification may be causing ownership disputes to occur more frequently.

Dr. James Wilson, a veterinarian and lawyer who lectures on legal, ethical and business issues at veterinary schools around the country, has noticed that microchip ownership dilemmas are familiar to increasing numbers of students he encounters.

“A couple of years ago, only 5 to 10 percent of students had any kind of experience with this,” said Wilson, who teaches nearly 2,000 students each year. “Now 30 to 40 percent of students have experience. ... In almost every school, I can have three to seven students tell me microchip stories, and they don’t even have their (veterinary) licenses yet!”

The central dilemma for veterinarians is this: They’re generally prohibited by client confidentiality rules from divulging information about a pet without the client’s permission. If a pet has a chip indicating its owner is not the client who brought it in, the veterinarian needs the client’s consent to share information about the pet with the registered owner.

There’s no problem if the client is willing to relinquish the animal to the registered owner. But if the client is unwilling, the veterinarian is put in the uncomfortable position of not acting on the knowledge that the pet might rightfully belong to someone else.

This possibility is deeply troubling to many veterinarians. After all, it’s standard in the profession to promote microchipping as a way to increase the chances that lost pets will be returned to their owners.

As Ellis puts it: “Why should I bother microchipping animals if no one’s going to bother trying to get them back (home) if they get lost?”

With that in mind, Ellis set out to return the terrier mix to what she believed was his home. But it turned out the situation wasn’t that simple. The registrant told Ellis she’d given the dog to someone who lived in a different city. Exactly how the dog ended up in Sanford, some 80 miles distant, was never clear. Regardless, the registered owner wanted the dog back.

Ellis started to have doubts but was committed to ironing out the situation. She invited the registered owner to the clinic to see if the dog truly was hers. The woman who found the stray came, too.

“She has three kids, and they love the dog already. She brought the kids,” Ellis recounted. The registered owner arrived with a child in tow, as well.

“We’re going to try to out-kid each other!” Ellis said, incredulous. “So everybody shows up and it was, like, a disaster. I felt like such a putz.”

At this point, Ellis was rooting for the prospective adoptive family. They’d taken tender care of the wire-haired little mutt, diligently bathing and grooming him to remove mats and ticks. “The kids were already walking him on a regular basis,” Ellis said. “One was responsible for feeding him, one was responsible for cleaning him. It was just heart-breaking.”

What’s more, the child of the registered owner didn’t seem to care about the dog. “He was more interested in the lizard we had,” the veterinarian said.

In the end, the registered owner took the dog. The woman who found him gave in. “The kids were, of course, bawling. It was horrible,” Ellis said.

Despite that miserable experience, Ellis hasn’t changed her mind about the rightness of contacting registered owners of found animals bearing microchips. Like many of her colleagues, the veterinarian imagines how she’d feel if her own dog were lost and no one tried to return her. “I’d be absolutely furious if somebody scanned her and said, ‘Oh well,’ ” she said.

After the terrier debacle, Ellis established a Found and Stray Animal Policy that lays out this procedure for handling a found animal brought to her clinic: 1) Animal Control is notified as required by local law to make a “found animal” report. 2) The animal is scanned for a microchip. 3) If a chip is detected, the clinic holds the animal while attempting to reach the registered owner. 4) If the owner is looking for the pet, the pet is returned. 5) If the owner cannot be contacted or relinquishes the animal, the finder may adopt it.

Finders are asked to agree to the procedure, which takes care of a critical issue on the veterinarian’s side: It forestalls the establishment of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship until the ownership question is sorted out.

This is important because where such a relationship exists, a veterinarian is bound by professional licensing rules to safeguard client and patient information. VIN lawyer Raphael Moore explained on a VIN message board the risks of violating client confidentiality:

“This has nothing to do with microchipping laws, and everything to do with ensuring that clients’ trust is not jeopardized,” he wrote. “You are not only opening yourself up to monetary damages to the new owner (not simply the value of the pet, but the costs for defending against the old owner, vet bills if they lose, attorney fees, and exemplary damages), but also violating your Practice Act.

“In addition, think of the lack of trust this can cause in your clients... Are you going to tell my ex-husband about my dog's skin rash, so that he can use it against me when he claims I'm an unfit parent in a custody dispute over our children (yes, this has happened)? Are you going to tell my neighbors who are also your clients about my dog eating prescription pills I neglected to lock up (yes, that happened as well)?”

Moore said Family Veterinary Hospital’s Found and Stray Animal Policy handily addresses the issue. “If the consent is to scan and to give out the information, you are golden,” he said.

Unfortunately, ownership questions can arise even with animals that aren’t picked up as strays. A veterinarian in Arizona had a case years ago in which a Yorkshire terrier purchased from a pet store in Indiana was found to have a microchip registered to someone in yet another state.

The clinic receptionist scanned the dog after the new owners made a comment about the strange Midwest pet store where they’d bought it. After detecting a chip, the receptionist learned that the Yorkie had been stolen from its back yard somewhere in the South. “Belonged to a lady whose entire life was centered around this dog,” the veterinarian recalled.

The new owners wanted the keep the dog. The veterinarian doesn’t know how the case was resolved because the clinic receptionist handled it without consulting her. The veterinarian was happy to keep an arm’s length from the situation for the same reason that she requested not to be identified in this story — for fear of drawing the disapproval of her state licensing board.

The microchip ownership question “is a huge issue,” she said. “We open ourselves to this huge can of worms.”

Complicating things further, sometimes the registered owner isn’t the rightful owner at all. It could even be someone with questionable intent. Dr. Melanie Moore, owner of Animal Care Clinic in Concord, N.C., related the case of a found Labrador retriever whose chip traced back to a breeder located more than an hour's drive away.

The breeder claimed the dog was his, but Moore suspected differently. Through the dog’s rabies tag, the clinic was able to locate the real owner, who said the dog had gotten out just that morning; it was picked up two blocks from home.

The owner had purchased the 3-year-old Lab from the breeder years before and wasn’t told the dog had a microchip, let alone given information on how to re-register the chip in her name, Moore said.

When the breeder showed up at the clinic to retrieve the Lab, Moore turned him away. The experience was unpleasant. “He was a nasty, mean man,” she said.

VIN lawyer Raphael Moore notes that microchips actually offer no proof of ownership identity.

“(It’s) just like the fact that my daughter's name written on a sweatshirt doesn't mean it is her sweatshirt,” he wrote on the message board. “It just means I had the sweatshirt in my hands and I wrote her name on it. A chip with my identity in a dog just means that a marketing company registered a chip in a dog to my name. Nothing more, and nothing less. A vet may have been involved. I may have shown my identity. I may have shown proof that the dog was mine. But then I may have done none of that.”

In yet another variation on the theme, some owners deliberately choose not to register their pets’ chips in their name. Dr. Crystal Lindaberry, a member of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, is an example.

Lindaberry has a cat she was given by a friend. The friend needed a new home for the cat because it didn’t get along with her two other cats. Lindaberry opted to leave the cat’s chip registration in her friend’s name for several reasons, a chief one being that as an active-duty member of the military, she moves frequently. If she re-registered the cat, she’d have to update her address with each relocation.

Since the registered owner is her friend, Lindaberry figures she’d be able to get the cat back were it to be lost, found and scanned — a situation she deems unlikely since the cat, she said, is “an indoor only ’fraidy-cat who never makes any attempt to come out from under the bed, let alone sneak out the door.”

Wilson, the lawyer and veterinarian who’s discerned an increase in ownership conflicts posed by microchip information, said the laws on pet ownership offer no guidance. None of the multiple state and local laws he’s examined mentions microchips at all.

“Every one of them says that if you have possession, and if you’re harboring, feeding, caring for (the pet) ... then you are the owner. The ownership laws universally, at this point, make possession the primary concern,” Wilson said.

This implies that microchip ownership information is irrelevant — a notion to which many veterinarians passionately object.

Wilson agrees that microchip information should count for something. Toward that end, he’s drafted model legal language he believes would help:

“Owner” includes any person or other legal entity that owns, keeps or harbors an animal except when the animal is tattooed or microchipped, in which case there shall be a presumption that the party that tattooed or registered the microchipped animal is the owner. Note: This presumption may be rebutted with a preponderance of evidence to the contrary.

“It’s going to be a big task to get people to change the law in enough places,” Wilson said, “but until all these local laws become more contemporary, dealing with this major issue involving microchipping ... and ownership ... is going to be good money for attorneys but a terrible problem for veterinarians caught in the middle.”

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