Veterinarians wrestle with legal ethical concerns over microchips and ownership

Veterinarians wrestle with legal ethical concerns over microchips and ownership

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Feb 01, 2009

National Report — As microchipping becomes more common, veterinarians are questioning their legal liability and ethical obligations in regard to sorting out ownership questions and disputes, prompting the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to update its policy on the issue.

Although more cities and states are requiring microchipping, attorney Greg Dennis, a member of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association, says he isn't aware of any state board regulations or statutes that directly address the issue. And city laws, he says, can't govern a rule for veterinarians in the process.

But the discussion on microchipping ethics, liability and personal horror stories is a hot topic on the Veterinary Information Network, where veterinarians debate their role when ownership comes into question or when an animal presents with multiple microchips.

"My view on it would be, you can establish a standard practice, and you've got to be careful in states that have veterinary client privilege law because, at that point, I think if the vet does scan the animal and gets a reading back, they should speak to the person who presented the animal," Dennis says, adding that there might be a reason that the ownership listed by the microchipping service is incorrect.

Microchipped animals could have been given up to a shelter and adopted by a new owner, or given as a gift, he says.

The AVMA recently tackled the issue and updated its policy on electronic identification, encouraging veterinarians always to scan patients that are presented to them with a microchip.

"A veterinarian is expected to exercise his or her professional judgment on ownership before establishing a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. In those circumstances that raise suspicion, a veterinarian should ask for documentation of ownership," advises the AVMA.

"Where the veterinarian has cause to believe that ownership of the animal is unclear, the veterinarian should postpone treatment until evidence of ownership is presented unless ... the treatment is necessary to maintain the health of the animal, to preserve its life or protect public health."

An AVMA task force, a joint effort between the state advocacy committee and the counsel on veterinary service, recently was created to further explore the issue, and Adrian Hochstadt, AVMA's assistant director of state legislative and regulatory affairs, says more changes may come as the group discusses microchipping further this month.

Life-saving procedures certainly should be performed even if ownership is questionable, agrees Dr. Ralph Johnson, Colorado Veterinary Medical Association executive director, who is working with the AVMA task force. Elective services certainly can wait for proof of ownership, but this doesn't mean that veterinarians should be responsible for settling ownership disputes or monitoring the microchipping system, Johnson says.

"I don't think there's anyone who wants to get veterinarians in the position of policing. We want to encourage microchipping for identification purposes and get veterinarians to scan as frequently as they can."

Scanning, however, has more to do with ethics and good practice procedure than legal liability, says Johnson.

There is little legal precedent regarding veterinarians who have faced liability in ownership disputes, says Dennis. There are some "pre-microchip" cases where animals have come into veterinary practices and the veterinarian has recognized the patient as belonging to an owner other than the person who presented it. He pointed to a case in Missouri a few years ago where a neighbor brought two dogs in and asked for them to be euthanized. The veterinarian recognized the dog and knew the presenter was not the owner, so he refused to perform the euthanization. But the presenter brought the animal to a veterinarian in another town and the animals were euthanized.

"The first vet never contacted the owner to say what the neighbor was doing. No disciplinary action against the veterinarian was taken there," says Dennis. "But with criminal law, you can get into a question about whether there is a situation of knowingly receiving a stolen animal. But the veterinarian, in treating the animal, has no liability, only the owner."

As new cases about disputed ownership and issues about microchipping are presented, new facts will be reviewed, says Johnson, adding there is no single perfect answer.

"There can be business issues, it could be an ethical issues and perhaps legal considerations at some point," he says. "The law just has to work these things out over time as cases come forward."