When a microchip raises more questions than it answers
We've had a few lost pets over the years come into our hospital with a microchip that helped us successfully return the pet to its owner.
But it doesn't always work out nicely.
Last fall, a couple who were long-time clients came in with an adult cat they'd been taking care of for six months. They wanted to make sure the cat was healthy. After an exam and a clean bill of health, I moved on to the next exam room.
The technician was about to walk the owners to checkout when she realized the receptionist had forgotten to check for a microchip when getting the cat's weight (which is our policy). Upon waving the wand, a number appeared and the technician informed the owners that this cat could have had a previous owner. The owners were upset—they didn't want to lose the cat, regardless of whether he’d had a previous owner.
When I came out of the exam room, I found the technician on the phone with the microchip company. Another associate was telling the upset owners they didn't have any say in this. Upon learning what had happened, I told the technician to hang up the phone. I informed the staff that our primary obligation was to the owner standing here with us and the pet they’d brought into the building.
My understanding is that we have a legal obligation to abide by our clients' wishes. The moral and ethical decision would have been to find the owners attached to the microchip and see if they still wanted this cat. But that moral and ethical decision rested with the client, and it was our legal duty not to give this medical information away without their consent.
I don’t believe there's a clear-cut mandate in the law on what to do in these specific microchip situations. Most lost pets with microchips wind up in rescues and shelters, and those facilities’ primary goal is to get the pet back to a loving owner or place it in a new loving home. But in this situation, when the client has bonded with the pet and taken ownership themselves, the line gets murky.
In these cases, I refer back to existing medical information consent laws.
Needless to say, in this case, my staff was upset both with what I said and the client’s decision. I followed up with the clients a few days later, but they didn't have much to say. Maybe over time they'll realize that someone out there might be wondering about their pet and that contacting the previous owner is the right thing to do. Maybe the previous owner doesn't want the cat back and it all worked out.
It'd be nice if we had more clarity in the law, though the onus of ownership is a dicey subject that can’t be easily legislated in one day. What if the pet had two microchips?
Microchips have provided some wonderful stories and brought hundreds of thousands of pets back to their owners. But I always let clients know that a number of things need to happen for a microchip to work. First, the pet needs to find someone with a reader. The second step is what everyone forgets: The finder needs to approve contacting the appropriate company and previous owner.
I also usually need to tell clients that the microchip isn't GPS, but I'm sure that's coming.