July 01, 2004

 

 Pet's death rekindles electronic ID debate

 

Posted on June 14, 2004

 

Lisa Massey knew little about the electronic microchip her local Banfield, The Pet Hospital, implanted in Hadden, Massey's 8-month-old American Pit Bull Terrier.

Like other pet owners who opt for the added precaution of microchipping a pet, Massey found a measure of comfort knowing that the rice-size chip increased her chances of being reunited with Hadden, were he to become lost.

So when Hadden disappeared after slipping his collar on the morning of April 12, Massey assumed she would be notified if the wayward terrier were picked up. The Stafford County, Virginia, Animal Shelter did, in fact, have custody of Hadden. But the shelter's scanners failed to detect the short-range radio frequency emitted by the dog's microchip.

After observing the mandatory, six-day holding period for stray animals, shelter staff waited four additional days for the owner to turn up. Michael Null, the shelter's chief animal control officer, explained why. "We normally try to hold onto every animal as long as we can."

On April 21, after 10 days with no inquiries about a missing American Pit Bull Terrier, Hadden was euthanatized.

Tragically, Massey called the shelter 30 minutes too late. She described Hadden in detail and mentioned his microchip. At that point, the dog's body was scanned again, this time with a scanner the shelter had received in January but had stored away. "Chip found," the scanner read.

When Banfield confirmed that Massey was, indeed, Hadden's owner, Null broke the news to Massey.

"They just explained that they were very sorry; that they were beside themselves; that they couldn't understand how, in fact, this happened; that they had scanned Hadden twice and nothing registered," Massey said.

This is the first documented case in the United States of incompatible microchip technologies resulting in the unnecessary death of a pet. So what happened?

A matter of compatibility

For nearly a decade, American Veterinary Identification Devices and Digital Angel Corp. (formerly Destron Fearing) have dominated the U.S. electronic pet identification market with the AVID and HomeAgain microchips, respectively.

More than two million of the country's cats and dogs are estimated to have an AVID or HomeAgain implant, the latter microchip being distributed by Schering-Plough Animal Health Corp.

In January of this year, Banfield announced its veterinary clinics would soon begin distributing the Crystal Tag microchip, created by Swiss-based DATAMARS. Along with letters of explanation from Banfield and the manufacturer, approximately a thousand free scanners were sent to animal shelters nationwide.

Since February, "tens of thousands" of animals have been chipped with Crystal Tag, said Alex Schrage, Banfield's vice president of business development.

Unlike AVID and HomeAgain chips that emit a 125 kHz frequency, the Crystal Tag chip operates on a 134.2 kHz frequency, which complies with standards for electronic pet identification set by the International Standards Organization.

The ISO standard for microchips is used to identify pets in Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia, and has been endorsed for use in the United States by the American National Standards Institute.

Additionally, the AVMA, American Animal Hospital Association, and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are on record as encouraging the U.S. animal microchip industry to adopt the ISO standard.

"It's the international standard," said Dr. Karen Johnson, Banfield's client advocate director. "It's the chip used in 148 other countries, and we believe it will be the standard in this country as well."

Dr. Johnson said an added benefit of ISO technology is the scanners detect 134.2 kHz chips faster and at a greater distance than non-ISO scanners can detect the 125 kHz chips, thus creating less work and ensuring greater accuracy.

But Dr. Dan Knox, director of AVID companion animal services, disputes claims that the ISO is the global standard for microchips. "I think the United States is a very significant part of the world, and that is not what we're using here in companion animals," Dr. Knox said, adding his view that 125 kHz is the U.S. standard.

The United States has the most effective pet recovery system in the world, Dr. Knox said, with more than 8,000 pets recovered weekly, thanks to AVID and HomeAgain microchips. Nearly 200,000 pets with the HomeAgain chip have been recovered, according to the product's Web site.

The current U.S. microchip standard works effectively because some 70,000 AVID and HomeAgain scanners are already in place at animal shelters, humane societies, and veterinary clinics nationwide, Dr. Knox observed.

Although AVID chips are encrypted for security reasons, the HomeAgain scanner still detects its presence in an animal. These scanners are not designed to read Crystal Tag chip or any other 134.2 kHz microchip, however.

"What we have here is a different, foreign chip that's being brought in and it's caused a lot of confusion with pet owners, with shelters, and veterinarians," Dr. Knox said. "Microchips will save an animal's life if (they) can be found."

The fallout

Massey is suing Banfield for Hadden's death, claiming she wasn't fully informed about the Crystal Tag microchip.

"I wasn't even aware there were several different chips. I wasn't even aware there was a controversy," she said. AVID has filed a suit of its own, alleging Banfield misled consumers with false claims that animal shelters across the country are equipped with scanners that read the ISO microchip.

For several years, the pros and cons of adopting the ISO standard in the United States have been debated by veterinary, humane, and animal control organizations, as well as by the microchip manufacturers and distributors.

But when news of Hadden's death broke, the debate was waged via a flurry of press releases. Blame was assigned for Hadden's death. Pet owners and shelters were cautioned about a new brand of unreliable microchips entering the country. And manufacturers were called on to develop universal microchip scanners.

The Virginia Animal Control Association warned that Banfield was distributing microchips "not compatible with scanners currently (used) in almost every Virginia animal shelter." Banfield, in turn, faulted the Stafford County Animal Shelter for not using the new scanner.

Mark Kump, president of the Virginia Animal Control Association, claims Banfield told him the company planned on suing the association for defamation and restraint of free trade. Banfield acknowledged asking the association not to issue further critical statements but denies the lawsuit threat.

Schrage of Banfield implied that Massey could have done more to find Hadden. "There's some responsibility of the pet owners if the pet is lost," Schrage said. "And that's what we recommend to people, that they would go look for them immediately."

In the initial aftermath, Banfield said in May that it was stepping up efforts to increase distribution of ISO scanners and client education materials. But the company quickly reversed itself.

"Banfield has temporarily stopped distribution of our microchips to our hospitals so that we can help and give the shelters time to acquire more ISO scanners," said company spokesperson, Dana Peterson.

Plans are in place for DATAMARS to donate additional scanners to animal shelters. Peterson added that Banfield is also donating scanners from its hospitals to ensure that a sufficient number of ISO scanners are available before microchipping resumes.

A duopoly?

Soon after Banfield began offering Crystal Tag, the Humane Society of the United States, along with a host of other animal care and control organizations, proposed a summit. The idea is to bring together microchip manufacturers to resolve the incompatibility of the ISO and non-ISO technologies.

A similar resolution was sought in the early 1990s. But the process fell apart when manufacturers failed to reach a compromise. As of press time in late May, there were no takers of the latest offer.

Companies wanting to compete in the U.S. marketplace face serious legal challenges, since AVID and Digital Angel hold patent rights on the 125 kHz technology, including the microchip scanners. Just this February, AVID filed a lawsuit in federal court, accusing microchip manufacturer Allflex USA Inc., and Pethealth Inc., a Canadian pet health insurance company, of infringing on AVID's exclusive rights to the 125 kHz scanner. Pethealth is countersuing AVID for false and deceptive advertising and unfair competition.

Some people have described AVID and Digital Angel's hold on the U.S. pet microchip market as a duopoly, said Dr. Walt Ingwersen, an ISO standard advocate and former editor of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. He currently sits on the Veterinary Advisory Board for 24PetWatch, a Pethealth Inc.-owned company marketing ISO and non-ISO standard technologies in Canada and America.

Dr. Ingwersen has written extensively about electronic pet identification, and he believes the goal should be the eventual creation of a national or even global pet recovery network. Such a network will never be realized as long as there are incompatible microchip technologies. The ISO standard resolves the compatibility problem by establishing a unified technologic infrastructure unencumbered by patent protections, he explained.

"That paves the way for a system that is truly compatible, regardless of manufacturers," Dr. Ingwersen said. "Whether you're in Akron, Ohio, or Paris, France, the system will work globally at being able to identify an animal."

Getting from here to there

Animal shelters, humane societies, and veterinary organizations are essentially begging microchip manufacturers to provide a "forwards-and-backwards"-compatible scanner, that is, one able of reliably detecting both ISO and non-ISO microchips. ("Universal scanner" can be misleading since the term can mean either a scanner that only detects the 125 kHz microchips or one that reads multiple frequencies.)

If you're a veterinary technician or intake handler at a shelter dealing with an aggressive animal, the last thing you want to do is track down another scanner just to be sure you aren't missing a microchip, explained Ralph Johnson, executive director of the Colorado VMA and Denver Area Veterinary Medical Society.

"We're calling on the manufacturers and marketers and distributors to come up with that solution," Johnson said.

AVID has had such a scanner since 1996, but it is only available in foreign markets where the ISO standard is common. Despite having the "best universal scanner" available, AVID isn't selling the model in the United States because it is slower and less dependable than those currently available, Dr. Knox said.

"It's like trying to listen to one radio station in one ear and another radio station in the other ear, and for your brain to try to make some sense of this," he explained. "That's exactly what this scanner has to do; it has to look for these different frequencies.

"It will eventually find them, but it takes so much longer than people are accustomed to doing, they're, therefore, going to miss chips and they're going to blame the scanner."

Even if a reliable forwards-and-backwards scanner were available in the United States, there's the matter of shelters, veterinary clinics, and humane societies making the transition from the 125 kHz to the 134.2 kHz standard.

In its position statement endorsing the ISO microchip standards, the AAHA recommends that the scanners be in place prior to the ISO chips being introduced.

Banfield's distribution and subsequent suspension of the Crystal Tag raises questions about introduction strategies. Pethealth Inc. president and CEO Mark Warren has "serious concerns" about the manner in which Banfield conducted its program, saying it illustrates the need for an effective introduction plan. Warren claims Pethealth Inc. has brought ISO technology to Oregon and Wisconsin in such a way as to exceed published transition recommendations.

Similar to how the transition occurred in Europe, Pethealth's first priority was to get forwards-and-backwards scanners in the hands of better than 80 percent of the pet recovery network in Oregon and Wisconsin before distributing a single ISO chip. Last year, the company gave at least one free forwards-and-backwards scanner to every known humane society and animal shelter and most emergency veterinary clinics in each state.

For Warren, any debate over microchip technology is a distraction. The widespread support of the AVMA and others for the ISO standard settled it. Now, it's just a question of which transition strategy to use, he said.

But the debate isn't really over. Not for the competing microchip manufacturers, nor for the proponents and critics of the incompatible technologies. In that sense, nothing has changed. And for animal control officers such as Michael Null and everyone else responsible for scanning stray animals, there can't help but be a tinge of doubt when no microchip is detected.

"We've got a difficult enough task out here. I don't need anything else hampering that, especially with an item that's supposed to help," Null said. "I just wish they would all come to some type of mutual agreement where they're manufacturing a product that we can all use."