Conflicts, Confusion Mar Pet Microchip ID Plans

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It's now common for pet owners to insert a tiny microchip under their pets' skin to help identify lost pets. But conflicting equipment and practices between the major scanning companies has prevented some animals from being found.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

A break now from the grim news of the day with a story about pets and the technology that loves them. Some pets are now sporting high-tech ID tags. Tiny microchips are being implanted in some dogs and cats, replacing the traditional metal heart-shaped `My name is Fluffy' tags. Animal shelters can use the information in the chips to find stray pets, but animal welfare workers worry that a dispute over the technology could endanger the animals. NPR's Eric Niiler reports.

ERIC NIILER reporting:

Call it a bar code for Buddy. It's a microchip the size of a grain of rice embedded just beneath an animal's skin. Shara Varsha(ph), manager at the Friendship animal hospital in Washington, DC, has implanted thousands of chips, each costing about 25 to 60 bucks each.

Ms. SHARA VARSHA (Friendship Animal Hospital): The microchip is inserted in between the shoulder blades of the animals. It has basically a plastic casing that makes it so it's non-migratory. It's going to hold in that one position.

NIILER: Varsha takes a handheld scanner that looks like something you'd find at a grocery store. The scanner retrieves an ID number on each chip.

Ms. VARSHA: If this animal is microchipped, I can call this company and say, `I have this microchip number. Can you please give me the information of the owner?'

NIILER: About 10 million dogs and cats have already been chipped in the past decade. The advantage of the chip over a metal tag is that the chips don't fall off and owners can update their contact information quickly. There are dozens of heartwarming tales about pet owners finding long-lost animals with the help of a chip. The problem is that not all chips can be read by all scanners, and not all shelters use the same scanning device. Mike Zawistowski is science adviser to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He says the dispute is between companies that make and sell the chips.

Mr. MIKE ZAWISTOWSKI (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals): Fifteen, 20 years ago, I think each of the companies thought that they were going to somehow or another be able to dominate the marketplace in the way that we saw the competition between VHS and Betamax.

NIILER: One company, California-based Avid, decided to encrypt their chips, saying it would prevent fraud. That angered many vets and shelter operators, who said it'd cost them extra time and money to get the data. Another company, Banfield of Portland, Oregon, started selling European-style chips that can only be read by a higher-frequency scanner. Avid sued Banfield in 2004. Avid spokesman Dan Knox said American pets should get the American standard microchip.

Mr. DAN KNOX (Spokesman, Avid): Wherever an animal is going to be living, that animal should have the technology in use in that country implanted.

NIILER: A Banfield spokeswoman in Portland said the firm wants shelters to use the international standard chip. They even got Congress to adopt a measure in support. But there's more at stake here than bragging rights between the two companies. In fact, at least one dog, a pit bull named Hailey(ph), was euthanized despite having the Banfield chip. The shelter did not have the newer European scanner. It happened last year at the Stafford County, Virginia, Animal Shelter.

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

NIILER: Chief control officer Mark Knoll(ph) walks me through the kennel out back and stops at one cage with a big grey dog they picked up last month.

Mr. MARK KNOLL (Stafford County, Virginia, Animal Shelter): He came here as a stray that came in on the 25th. It was scanned on the 25th by one of the shelter workers. It's initialed and it's property of the county now.

NIILER: This dog, like all the others, was scanned, but it didn't have a chip or an owner who could be found. As for the euthanized dog Hailey, Knoll would not talk about that case on tape, citing the possibility of a lawsuit. But he confirmed the dog owner had a European chip sold by Banfield's chain of animal hospitals. Since then, the Stafford Shelter uses several kinds of scanners. But Knoll says it's not foolproof and makes his life more difficult.

Mr. KNOLL: It would be very beneficial to pet owners, animal control officers, veterinarians, anybody that works in the animal field, it's best for the animals if we did come to a uniform decision on what equipment to use out here.

NIILER: Avid and Banfield settled their lawsuit last month. They agreed to jointly fund an independent study to decide which system works better. Until then, what's a pet owner to do? Along with a microchip, Zawistowski from the ASPCA has tied metal dog tags around his beagle's neck. Eric Niiler, NPR News, Washington.

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