When a microchip raises more questions than it answers

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When a microchip raises more questions than it answers

What do you do when you find a microchip at your veterinary practice and the pet owner says "no," you can't scan it? Here's how I handle it.
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Apr 23, 2017

A microchip can raise some uncomfortable questions for a veterinary team. (Shutterstock.com)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.

Dr. Andrew Rollo is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and an associate at Madison Veterinary Hospital in Michigan.

Heartbreaking choice

I completely disagree with this veterinarian's decision. Yes, at this moment, these are your clients related to this pet, but you have no proof that they are the owner. They said that they found the cat 6 months ago and are just now bringing it in for an exam. If they had brought the cat immediately after they found it, then the microchip could have been found and the previous owners could have been located right away (before the new family got attached). There may be a family searching for their pet and thinking the worst has happened and you are allowing them to suffer.
There is also the possibility that the current client stole this cat from its previous home. In that case, they should not have any legal standing.
Let's look at it from another angle. If they brought this cat in to be euthanized and there was a potential that it had another home- would you just do as you were told? or would you look for the other home?
It breaks my heart to think that there may be a family worried about their pet and they were just minutes away from a phone call that could have reunited them.

Microchip Questions

I'm sorry but this is not a legal issue. It is a right or wrong issue. You know that there is a chip in the pet. It is unethical not to research the chip and attempt to locate the registered owner. Your staff was correct. Your thought that your obligation to the client in your clinic would have been correct if the pet had actually belonged to the client. It was obvious that the pet had another owner at one time. Your obligation was to the pet!

very gray area

I have had clients pick up the animal run out the clinic when I told them there was a microchip. Most of these found pets are not registered anyway, that's what I tell my clients before I scan. So if one is found they dont freak out right away.

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Sad story

This is a hard topic to talk about, but a very important one. I'm pretty sure you should have contacted legal owners of the cat, no matter what current caretakers say. I understand that it could be stressful for the present owners and the cat, but this is the right thing to do. Nevertheless - thank for the article, interesting read.

Best regards,
Joseph