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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Microchip implant technology as a way of identifying animals has been available since the 1980s. A microchip slightly larger than a grain of rice is implanted under a pet’s skin to give it a unique identification code similar to a person’s social security code, a motor vehicle’s registration number, or an ISBN number of a published book. A special reader or scanner picks up the identifying data from the microchip. An implant can often be felt under the skin or a dog or cat.

The advantages of having a pet microchipped are many. Perhaps most importantly, a microchip facilitates prompt return of a lost pet to its owners, preventing the heartache that can occur when a pet is missing for a prolonged period and not knowing if it has found a home, is hungry and thirsty, or has been hit by a motor vehicle and is lying injured or dead somewhere. A microchip may eliminate the need for a costly search for a lost pet and may also help resolve ownership disputes.

In the United States, one in five dogs are lost or stolen each year. A pet with a microchip is more likely to be saved from becoming part of animal research or dog fights, or being used for its fur or as food for humans and animals. Another major advantage of microchips is the time and money saved by animal shelters having to accommodate and feed pets and to find them a new home. Overcrowding in shelters is eased and animals are less likely to be put down.

Pets go through a simple and painless procedure to have a microchip inserted. First, a pet is scanned for an existing implant. A single-use syringe injects the microchip just under the skin on the back of the neck between the shoulder blades. The injection is painless and over in seconds, much like our dentist’s needle before a filling, and causes the animal no stress.

Most veterinarians charge $50-60 to microchip a pet, a very small fraction of the overall cost of owning a pet. The procedure can be done at the same time as spaying or neutering. A wide range of pets are suitable for microchipping, including dogs, cats, birds, fish, mice, rabbits, ferrets, lizards and frogs as well as larger animals such as horses, goats and sheep. Even elephants and whales have been microchipped. A chip has no adverse physical or behavioral effects on an animal.

The rest of the process is easy too. A form is filled out with the owner’s and pet’s details and the chip number. The form goes to a registry keeper who records the details in their database. The keeper provides a 24 hour a day lost pets service for the life of the animal. If a pet is found and taken to an animal shelter, it will be scanned for a microchip. The recovery service is called, the chip number matched, and the pet reunited with its owner.

A microchip is easier and preferable to tattooing. Also, the advantages over collar identification only are several. Collars can fall off, can be pulled off when a dog retreats after putting its head between the palings of a fence, or can break if the dog gets involved in a fight. Some dogs won’t let you check their collars, whereas a reader can work from several yards away and around corners.

Criticisms of microchips are few. A study has found that microchips increase cancer in rats and mice. However, the rate of serious complications in dogs and cats in the United Kingdom is one in a million. Another problem currently being addressed is that many scanners can’t read at least one of the four major chip types.

Nevertheless, the benefits of microchipping far outweigh any disadvantages. A microchip gives pet owners peace of mind that if their pet is lost or stolen, the animal is far more likely to be found promptly and returned to its owners, and everyone is happy.