Microchips Open Murky Legal Waters, But AVMA Still Urges The Practice

While microchipping is a good way to find a lost pet, the legal aspects of ownership are still being decided.

State laws and regulations aren’t clear yet on whether or not reporting a microchipped dog breaches veterinary-client confidentiality.

Gina Cioli/I-5 Studios

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Dog Fancy magazine, a sister publication of Veterinary Practice News.

Most owners presume that if they have their pet tagged with microchip identification and she becomes lost, someone who finds the pet will scan the chip and notify the owner.

Often, fortunately, the scenario does play out this way. Shelters, animal-control organizations and veterinarians usually scan for microchips on recovered dogs.

"While microchipping is, indeed, a new and helpful way to reclaim a lost pet, there are some occasional murky legal waters stemming from certain circumstances and facts,” explains Heidi Meinzer, an animal law attorney in Alexandria, Va. For example, when microchips are placed in the dog upon the client’s request, rarely is any "proof” of ownership required.

"A lost, non-microchipped dog owned by family X may be found by family Y, who after diligently trying to find the owner decides to keep the dog and microchip her,” Meinzer explains. "If family X locates the dog, perhaps even showing up with registration papers, the door opens for a property dispute between the families.”In some cases, ownership may not be so clear-cut.

Generally, in common law the original owner of a dog has a superior ownership interest compared with the finder of a lost dog.

Certain facts, however, may alter those rights.

"At times, reasonable efforts on the part of the finder to track down the original owner, as well as the time spent caring for the dog, may be sufficient to overcome the prior owner’s original superior interest,” Meinzer says.

And microchipping a dog can affect a court’s perception of ownership.

"While microchips are strong evidence of ownership, especially in theft of companion animal cases, they’re not the only variables a court will consider in deciding cases of disputed ownership,” explains Scott Heiser of Portland, Ore., senior attorney and criminal justice program director with the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

"Proof of one’s bond to, and relationship with, an animal can be more compelling in certain contexts.”

So just because a dog is microchipped doesn’t mean the owner automatically will get it back if it is lost or even stolen, and later identified.

Courts, state legislatures and veterinary associations continue to explore the ethics and practicalities of contested dog ownership.

"Conflicts about dog ownership after Hurricane Katrina, for example, involved families that had left dogs behind (sometimes voluntarily and other times involuntarily) disputing with the families that had adopted the dogs,” Meinzer says.

Some the courts examined not only ownership claims, but the levels of care provided to the dogs in dispute.

"Similarly, in complicated dog custody disputes, some courts are beginning to take into account the dog’s well-being and her relationships with the contesting owners,” Meinzer says. "Dogs may legally be deemed property, but they’re viewed very differently in our society than the average piece of personal property.”

New Considerations

Microchipping identification adds new considerations. Is the finder of a lost dog obligated to have the dog scanned for a chip before taking ownership of the dog? What if the finder is well-intentioned but uneducated about microchipping?

"In Virginia there is a civil penalty for a finder who doesn’t take the necessary steps to find the rightful owner of property,” Meinzer explains. "The statute may not specifically address dogs or scanning for a chip, but scanning could be deemed a reasonable step.” 

Who polices the identification process?

Shelters typically scan for chips, but generally a veterinarian is not required to scan for a chip when a client brings in a dog.  A veterinarian’s primary obligation is to provide healthcare and treatment to a client’s dog.

"Veterinarians cannot be expected to investigate or resolve ownership disputes over an animal, but should ask for documentation of ownership in circumstances that raise suspicion that the presenting person may not actually be the lawful owner of the animal,” says Adrian Hochstadt, assistant director of state legislative and regulatory affairs for the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill.

In 2008, the AVMA adopted recommendations from a special task force to guide veterinarians in scanning patients for microchips prior to treatment.

"The revised guidelines also state that if a microchip implant is detected that the client isn’t aware of, the veterinarian should inform the client of this fact, provide the client with contact information for the microchip database company, and encourage the client to contact that company,” Hochstadt says.

So if someone steals or finds a microchipped dog, sells or gives it to another party, and that person’s vet discovers the hidden microchip, that doesn’t mean you automatically will get your dog back.

Veterinarians’ Role

Will a veterinarian be culpable for failure to scan for a microchip in the future?

"One of the few regulatory actions occurred not (in the United States) but in Great Britain, where a veterinarian was disciplined for not scanning for a microchip,” Meinzer says. "Interestingly, as well, owners in England will be required to microchip their dogs beginning in 2016.”

To further complicate the issues, state laws may regulate confidentiality between a veterinarian and his client. A client, after all, doesn’t always equate to the owner.

Is a veterinarian working for a client who brings in a beagle for treatment breaking client confidentiality when he scans the beagle, contacts the registering entity, and tracks down the person named on the chip when he discovers it is not the client?

"State laws and regulations aren’t clear yet on whether or not reporting a microchipped dog breaches veterinary-client confidentiality, or if a veterinarian has an affirmative obligation to contact former owners,” Hochstadt says.

And even if the registry is contacted, it still may fall to the original owner to negotiate or press legal rights to try to recover the dog.

As more people microchip their dogs, the property issues may be addressed and resolved by statute, case law, and regulatory agencies such as state veterinary boards.

"For now, the AVMA recommends that pet owners microchip their dogs,” Hochstadt adds. "A microchipped dog has a much better chance to be reunited with her owner.”

15 thoughts on “Microchips Open Murky Legal Waters, But AVMA Still Urges The Practice

  1. How about someone having a dog scanned for chip number and not waiting for the owners info and take the number and changing original owner to them self and forging the original owners signature and giving wrong info and phone numbers and new chip company excepts paperwork. Then what can you do? This is in Texas. Galveston county.

  2. whats the use in microchipping your cats and dogs if the vets won’t scan and no one try’s to get it back to the rightful owner!

    1. Because (I choose to believe) that most people will do the right thing. I scan at least 2 lost (found) dogs a week, for the sole purpose of finding the rightful owner. In my 20+ years, I’ve only had one client that found a dog and then when in was discovered the dog had a chip, left with the dog, rather than allowing us to find the rightful owner. On the other side, I have reunited more than a hundred dogs with their rightful owners, simply because they had a microchip. Be sure to register your pet’s chip with the manufacturer and keep your information up to date.

  3. Vet’s NEED to scan and they need to get in deep dodo if they don’t – they can quietly do it before client can come back to room or do it and then call police in another room as storekeepers do with shoplifters. Complicated yes – but the CHIP RULES!!! Sad if the chip parents are horrible people but most who chip do it out of love…

  4. Microchips are very painful and expensive. My dog had a microchip and the vet did not read the long list of bad side effects. The vet lied and said the microchip was safe. A fast growing cancer grew around the microchip, then over 4 weeks grew to the size of a football. Vet surgeons said there was not enough time or enough skin to remove the fast growing huge tumor. The tumor never grew into the body, just grew around the microchip. The tumor was very hot. After death from this massive fast growing tumor, come to learn many pets get seizures from a microchip and many pets get fast growing large tumors too. Read more at ChipMeNot.org
    I wish we had know about ChipMeNot when the vet lied about the safety of microchips. Next dog, No microchip ever. We tried to adopt, but the rescues forced microchips, so we had to get a puppy without a microchip. After the misery from the microchip, we will never ever get a microchip again. We warn everyone to avoid microchips, so they can avoid the pain it may cause and the death of their pet before their time.

    1. So my daughter has adopted a puppy now the shelter is telling by tomorrow she is to microchip or give back the puppy which she’s had living with her for 3mos they shelter told her b4she left with the puppy she could chip or not now they forcing her and she doesn’t believe in them one because of her religion is she forced to do this

  5. Microchips are bad for pets. There are virtually no regulations protecting pets from dangerous products, including plastic microchips. They can introduce these products to the market without notice and there are no requirements for warning pet owners of the risks. The safety of pet microchips is misrepresented and the AVMA has not updated their data since 2010. There are over 4500 adverse events (as of year end 2017)reported in the UK since dog microchips were mandated in 2015. Go check the chipmenot websites.

    1. I’m sure the AVMA has, it’s just not available to the general public. You must be a Veterinary Professional to find out certain reliable information. Which is why if you have questions about your pets, you should always ask them not Google.

  6. We had a cat seek shelter in the upstairs of our garage last weekend. Temperatures were in the single digits. We left food/water out and had a heater running when we were home. After 4 days we were able to coax the cat out from the rafters and bring him in our home. He was very underweight, we took him to our vet who scanned for a chip and there was one. They attempted to find the owner but could not find them initially. The microchip company however continued the search unbeknownst to us. We assumed that we would keep the cat, he was loving and my daughter loved him. 3 days after the vet visit we got a call from the vet, the owner had been found and wanted the cat back. This would not have been an issue for us but the owner abandoned the cat 5 months before, leaving town and moving just 20 miles away. Since that time the cat had lived outside. There are times when microchipping does not serve the animal well in the end. We had to surrender the cat this morning and are concerned about its future welfare.

    1. I feel for you and your daughter. I can imagine it must be tough to return the cat after bonding with it. However unless the owner actually told you he abandoned it I don’t think you can make that assumption. I could easily see it getting scared during the move with all the movers and commotion, running away and not immediately coming back until after the move was done. If the owner didn’t want it he or she wouldn’t have asked for it back.

  7. I am extremely frustrated with microchips right now. I have adopted a dog that has a long backstory and can’t get the microchip switched to my name. The original owner took him in to be euthanized but a vet tech asked instead if the dog could be rehabilitated and rehomed. The owner agreed and signed off on surrender paperwork. The dog made its way to my house through a series of events. The person I got the dog from said the original owner has been saying they want the dog back but had allowed the dog to get into so much trouble that they had wanted to euthanize it? I can’t get the microchip changed without the company calling the original owner for permission, which they won’t give. A animal control officer offered to email the microchip company the surrender paperwork for proof the original owner had given up all rights to the dog and they still refused to budge on calling the original owner. I am at wits end.

    1. We have just had to leave my cat at the vet after finding out after three yrs of looking after a stray living in our gard n half starved they want it back !!
      They live 30 miles away and we moved giving it a loving home.my wife is devistated as they have not picked the poor thing up yet!

  8. What happens when a puppy (3 mos old) is given to another owner and the microchip is never transferred. The new owner has all the original paperwork, plus has the dog for over 2 years and vet records for the dog. The dog is given to a close friend/ family after begging the original owner for almost a year to give it back. The original owner who couldn’t handle the dog and gave it away at 3 mos old, then decides to claim sh ed only “borrowed” the dog to the 2nd owner, now claims she wants it back and alleges that the dog is “stolen.” And wants it back. Police get involved and tell her she is not getting the dog back. But the original owner registers the microchip as a “stolen” dog?

  9. My dog is chipped to ME. A young couple took her and her brother to “Foster.” I made it crystal clear that Mixxie, the female who is chipped, was my sons pet but he was undergoing treatment for Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I felt he would regret giving her up. That if it did not work out? BOTH were to be brought back.
    One of our pups (planned pregnancy btw) was trained as a service dog. But the people couldn’t keep her. I paid them $100 and drove 50 miles to get her back. She was given to them.
    2 weeks after taking them I received a call that it “wasn’t going to work out.” They had a younger puppy (the favorite) and said mine were “attacking her.” None of my dogs are aggressive. Dad IS a guard dog but also a “comfort” dog as are most of the others. Most went with families with disabled adults or children.
    I asked how they were “attacking.” I was told when they were trying to sleep and favorite puppy kept bugging them they grabbed her by the throat. Didn’t believe it and asked several questions. Wasn’t throat, was back of neck and is called “corrective” biting. No skin broken, puppy never made a sound.
    Mama dog had just gotten home that day from being spayed, and I was pretty sure my arm was broken. (It was) She said it “didn’t have to be today.” I asked if my dog trainer could contact her in the meantime and help her with her concerns. She said yes. I did not hear from her for a couple of weeks and assumed things were ok. There were complications with my break, and since there had been no more messages I honestly thought problem solved.
    My trainer contacted me to say she never responded. I immediately started messaging and was ignored. Also unfriended (kept my trainer though?) I finally contacted her boyfriend. I had to BEG several times. I have a terminal illness and want to move back home. I am NOT leaving my dogs. He never told me what happened to Angelo…put down is my guess, sigh.
    But said GF’S GRANDMOTHER “fell in love” with Mixxie and decided to keep her…uh. NO. Agreement was bring BOTH BACK. I reminded him of this SEVERAL times and he just blew it off. Sent me a picture of her. She was filthy, and looked so unhappy. I cried. I reminded him AGAIN that Mixxie was my sons pet, and he HAD changed his mind. I was ignored.
    I received a call from Home Again. Grandma had taken her to a vet. He ran chip. She came up as “LOST.” He did not report it, and gave MY DOG BACK TO THIS….She contacted Home Again asking for permission to re-register my dog in HER NAME. They contacted me? And I said NO and asked where she was so I could get her. I was told they could not give out the vet’s information due to HIPPA LAWS! EXCUSE ME? I was a Medicare Specialist before I had to stop working. Vet’s and dogs now have HIPPA RIGHTS??? My dog is no longer lost but STOLEN!
    Microchipping doesn’t do a damn thing. Police consider it a “Civil Matter” but if I go to her home (yes. I found her) and take MY DOG? I will be arrested! Unbelievable! Still chipped to me,they passed on my refusal to her, and she STILL is keeping my dog!
    That alone speaks to her character and I don’t want Mixxie with her.
    So what am I supposed to DO?
    Am making posters with Mixxies picture, reward, and STOLEN written right on top. She is in next County over from me? I plan on leaving them at every vet office. The one who refuses to let me post it? Is gonna be the vet.
    Than I plan on driving out to the country where grandma lives. The minute I see Mixxie off her private property? I am calling her. If she is happy to see me and gets in the car? I am driving away.
    Than I will send “grandma” all the messages for MONTHS begging to have her returned.
    People SUCK.

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