As if the microchip system for pet identification wasn’t complicated and inefficient enough, an influx of new players is adding confusion and stirring tension in the market.
Critics of the newcomers say the problem rests largely with those that sell chips with identification numbers that begin 9-0-0, a prefix shared by multiple companies. Established players use unique prefixes that allow chips to be traced back to their respective manufacturers. With so-called 900 chips, tracing a product to its origin may be more difficult.
Vendors of 900 chips say they’re not to blame for the confusion, and charge competitors with raising criticisms in an attempt to stifle competition. Some say they entered the muddy field of pet microchips precisely because it’s flawed, and they hope to improve it.
An examination by the VIN News Service found that the problem isn’t inherent with 900 chips. The issue is whether the microchip vendor provides ongoing support to customers, such as by being available to help track down owners of lost animals and participating in petmicrochiplookup.org, an online search tool.
In general, the pet microchipping system is bewildering, even when everything goes as planned. A common misconception is that the chip acts like a GPS device to pinpoint the pet's location, but the system is not that straightforward. Here is how it’s supposed to work, by and large:
1. A device the size of a rice grain or smaller is implanted between the shoulder blades of a pet. The device has a unique number, similar to a Social Security number, except with up to 15 digits.
2. The person or organization implanting the device, usually a veterinarian or animal shelter personnel, records the number and the pet owner’s name and contact information with a microchip registry, or instructs the pet owner to do so.
3. If the pet is picked up lost, the finder takes it somewhere it can be scanned, usually a veterinary clinic or animal shelter. The scanner detects the chip and displays its number.
4. The finder (or veterinarian or shelter) copies the number into a search field on the online site petmicrochiplookup.org to determine which registry — out of many — houses the pet’s owner information. The finder contacts the registry, locates the owner and returns the pet.
But reality doesn’t necessarily work that way. A main point of breakdown is that many owners fail to register the microchips, or neglect to keep registration information up-to-date. This is where a problem with 900 chips may arise.
Historically, veterinarians and shelter personnel could identify the chip vendor by the unique manufacturers’ code. It functioned like an area code in the days before area codes and mobile phones proliferated, when the number indicated the geographic location of the caller.
With multiple microchip companies using 900 as the opening sequence, it’s unclear with which company a given 900 chip originated. It’s not even clear how many companies use 900 chips. Estimates range from half a dozen to many dozens.
If the company participates with petmicrochiplookup.org, which is run by the nonprofit American Animal Hospital Association, it should be identifiable through the search tool. And if the company can be reached around-the-clock — since animals get lost and found at all times of the day and night, weekends and holidays — and maintains good records on its chip sales, the system may still work.
Here’s where more criticism of the 900 chip arises: Not all companies participate with the lookup tool, and some that do reportedly are not necessarily accessible or helpful.
“With the 900 chips, I can call the company that sold it, and I probably won’t get an answer,” said John Bowman, supervisor of Norman Animal Welfare, a municipal shelter in Oklahoma.
“I’ve gone through this before,” he recounted. “I’ve personally called them and there’s no answer. Usually it just rings off the wall. And when you do get somebody, they’ll tell ya, ‘We don’t track who we sold them to.’ ”
Three dogs have come through the Norman shelter with 900 chips during the past year, Bowman said. Two made it home after their owners came to the shelter looking for their lost pets. Those owners were unhappy that the microchips failed to work as expected. “They were miffed because, they said, ‘We’ve got a microchip!’ ” Bowman recalled. “We explained that there’s no registration on the microchip.”
The third dog did not make it home because the shelter couldn’t identify its owner. The dog ended up being adopted by someone else.
Bowman said with frustration, “Microchips, they’re not worth the money if they’re not trackable back to somebody.”
Staff at PetLink, a pet recovery service and registry operated by Datamars Inc., a long-time player in the microchip industry, have been fielding calls from animal shelter personnel looking for help identifying the companies behind unregistered 900 chips, according to Steve Wilcox, Datamars vice president of sales.
Prompted by the calls, Wilcox said he spent two weeks this spring surveying rescue workers and shelter managers about their experiences with 900 chips. He reported hearing a recurring tale of trouble finding the owners of unregistered pets due to difficulty finding “backtrack” information to the companies that sold the chips. In most such cases, he said, the shelters released the pets for adoption by new owners.
“This is causing grief and pain at shelters across the country,” Wilcox said. “It also (means) unfortunate pet owners are being given a false sense of security.”
Wilcox and representatives of other established microchip companies say that the best way to avoid the grief and disappointment is to buy chips from well-known companies.
Newcomers defend practices
Newer microchip vendors consider that advice self-serving.
“We’re in a competitive environment and they’re losing market share and they’re fighting back,” said Jon Dyer, CEO of 911PetChip, which entered the 25-year-old market five years ago.
Chips sold by Dyer’s company begin with 911, not 900, but established players regard it dubiously because the code was not assigned by the International Committee for Animal Recording. ICAR is an industry organization that has as one of its tasks preventing the duplication of animal identification numbers. Adhering to ICAR standards is voluntary.
A former investment banker, Dyer said he was urged by his brother-in-law, a veterinarian, to co-found the company in an attempt to fix what they see as the main problem dogging the pet microchip system: multiple registries.
Not only do untold numbers of registries exist, their prices vary. Some charge an annual fee, some charge to update contact information and so on.
“We wanted to get rid of the confusion, make it a simple process and make it free,” Dyer said.
At 911PetChip, the price paid by the original buyer, whether a veterinary clinic, shelter or breeder, covers the cost of registration, Dyer said. Anyone else who wishes to use the registry may do so for free, as well; they don’t have to have a 911 chip.
“Our goal in starting this was … we believe there should be one registry,” Dyer said. “There should be one, and it should be free. Whether it’s us or anybody else, there needs to be one national registry. So we’re leading by example.”
Another newcomer, Petstablished, entered the microchip market somewhat unintentionally. The company’s primary focus is selling management software to animal welfare organizations, according to the founder, Marc Thalheim. Petstablished began carrying chips at the request of its customers. Those chips sport the 900 number.
Thalheim said being an unknown player with a 900 chip would be a problem were it not for the existence of the online lookup tool. Thalheim said he made a point of participating with the AAHA-run search engine. “We weren’t going to do it unless we got in…” he said. “If you’re not there and you have a 900 chip, your service isn’t really a service.”
At least one company selling 900 chips does not participate with petmicrochiplookup.org. K9microchips, which advertises “chips as low as $2.97/ea!” appears to do nothing but sell chips, providing no support or user registry.
A disclaimer on its website states in part: “K9Microchips.com & its representatives are in no way obligated to assist anyone in anyway that did not directly do business with K9Microchips.com. We make no promise to keep information on who purchases microchips, nor to document which microchips are shipped to which customers.”
The company did not respond to email and telephone messages left by the VIN News Service.
While some vendors of 900 chips may be sketchy, the problem isn’t the 900 number per se, but the level of service provided by the seller, said Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of the Found Animals Foundation. The nonprofit organization sells a private-label Datamars chip and runs a free registry open to all chip brands.
In trying to distinguish the bad actors from the good, “I don’t think you’re going to find a quick and easy rule of thumb,” said Gilbreath, whose organization has been in the chip arena for 2½ years. “Listen, some of the established companies, there are things they do that I think are not to the benefit of consumers. Like charging people an exorbitant amount of money to change their contact information, which is a disincentive to keep your registration up-to-date.”
Some hallmarks of a reputable microchip company are easy to identify: Do they participate in the online lookup tool? Are staff available to help track the ownership of a lost, unregistered animal?
Others are more debatable. For example, Dr. John Wade, a veterinarian who has been in the microchip business for 25 years and currently is the CEO of Microchip ID Systems Inc., strongly believes that 24-hour telephone service with live agents is essential.
“There are things that arise every single day that require conversation,” Wade said.
For instance, direct conversation is needed to sort through misread or miswritten numbers, he said: “Somebody has put in 1-3 instead of a B,” or “there are people who transpose numbers all the time. All the time.”
And then there are cases that require sleuthing, such as when an animal “belonged to Joe but Joe died and now it’s his daughter” who needs to be contacted, Wade said. “When you have these (online only) recovery networks and the only thing you can do is type a number and a name pops up, that’s not a recovery.”
Hugh Cottingham, CEO of Nanochip ID Inc., which sells a chip that starts with 900 as well as a newer chip with the number 990, has a different view on the value of the telephone.
“All of the other services, they use old technology. They’re phone-based,” Cottingham said. “You go to the Internet and all you get is the 800 number (of the company), and then you call the 800 number. An operator has to do the lookup and then try to contact the owner while you are on the phone. It can be very time-consuming, waiting on hold. Our system is direct to the owner. Whether you’re using the website or the telephone, you get the owner’s contact information directly. You don’t have to talk to anyone else. …”
He continued: “Some of the (other services), they make you post your number on their website saying that you found this dog, ‘call me.’ It’s much less optimal. We thought we could be 21st century and just get rid of the phone, basically.”
To protect owners’ privacy, their names and addresses aren’t provided, only telephone numbers, Cottingham added.
AAHA, which runs the pet microchip lookup tool, learned only recently of concerns about 900 chips, said spokeswoman Kate Wessels. “We’re trying to educate ourselves to find out what needs to be done, if anything,” she said.
Making the tool accessible to as many companies as possible is a priority for the organization. “We want to be as inclusive as possible in order to better aid in pet recovery,” Wessels said.
After consulting with the AAHA leadership team, Wessels said the group will focus on sharing information about the wrinkles associated with microchipping. “The question is … how to best educate veterinary professionals and pet owners to be aware of the issues involved with microchipping,” she said. “We’ve always known it’s a difficult industry.”
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.