Coalition presses microchip makers for global scanner

Scanner sought that reads U.S. and ISO chips
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Animal welfare and veterinary associations are calling on microchip manufacturers and distributors to provide a scanner capable of reading all versions of electronic microchips used to identify lost pets.

The newly formed Coalition for Reuniting Pets and Families is asking that the companies resolve their differences, which have so far prevented a "global" microchip scanner from being available in the United States.

"Unfortunately, a chip may be readable at your local shelter but not at the veterinarian's office," explained Martha C. Armstrong, coalition spokesperson and a senior vice president for the Humane Society of the United States.

"This problem leads to missed reunions, a false peace of mind, and many broken hearts," Armstrong said.

Of the more than 2 million electronically identified dogs and cats in America, most are implanted with either an AVID or HomeAgain chip, both of which emit a 125 kHz frequency.

The two primary U.S. microchip manufacturers, American Veterinary Identification Devices and Digital Angel Corp., offer scanners that detect the rice-sized chips, which are encoded with the pet owner's contact information.

In other parts of the world, such as Canada, Western Europe, and Australia, pets are implanted with chips operating at 134.2 kHz—the standard set by the International Standards Organization. Several U.S. associations, including the AVMA, American Animal Hospital Association, and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, support adoption of the ISO standard in America.

Also available in these countries are "global" or "forwards-and-backwards" scanners that read microchips operating at either the 125 kHz or 134.2 kHz frequencies.

Scanners used by most U.S. humane societies, animal control agencies, and veterinary hospitals, however, are designed to detect only the 125 kHz AVID and HomeAgain chips. Moreover, AVID and Digital Angel hold the patent rights to the 125 kHz microchip and scanner technology, making it difficult for competing companies to enter the market.

The problem of incompatible technologies was underscored this April when an American Pit Bull Terrier was euthanatized after animal control officials failed to detect the microchip implant. The dog had been implanted with a 134.2 kHz Crystal Tag microchip at a Banfield, The Pet Hospital, clinic in Virginia (see JAVMA, July 1, 2004). Banfield has since suspended using the ISO chip.

Members of the Coalition for Reuniting Pets and Families, including the AVMA, AAHA, HSUS, and ASPCA, met July 9 in Washington, D.C., with several microchip companies.

Afterward, a letter was sent on behalf of the coalition to AVID, Schering-Plough Animal Health Corp., distributor of the HomeAgain chip, Digital Angel, 24PetWatch, owned by Pet Health Inc., Allflex USA, the Swiss-based DATAMARS, Crystal Tag Import Co., and Banfield. The companies were asked to permit the use of a scanner that can read all microchips, and that such a scanner be made available to shelters, animal control officers, and veterinarians throughout the country.

Microchip technologies, the letter states, have the potential to save millions of companion animal lives, but they must be universally applicable to do so. "At present, the chip of one company may be readable by a scanner at a local veterinary clinic in one town, but unreadable at the shelter down the street and vice versa," the letter states.

The letter goes on to explain that, if an agreement is reached, the Iams Company will donate funds for 30,000 global scanners for use by U.S. animal welfare and veterinary communities. At press time in September, at least two companies—DATAMARS and Trovan Ltd., of the United Kingdom—had responded to Iams' request for proposals to produce the scanners.

For now, however, an accord among American and foreign microchip companies is unlikely. Although supportive of the coalition's goal to ensure that every implanted microchip is detectable, Kevin McGrath, president and CEO of Digital Angel, accuses some ISO chip vendors of "warping the issue" to break into the marketplace.

"No one has come to us to say, 'We understand that you've spent 10 years building a business and we're prepared to make some sort of economic accommodation to you. This is not about trying to take your business away; it's about being humane to cats and dogs.' Not a single person has come to us and said anything like that," McGrath said.

"All that's happened," he continued, "is people have shown up and said, 'We want to sell our chips and you, Digital Angel and AVID, go modify all your scanners to read our chips also.' I think that's immoral."

According to M. Sue Richey, director of the American Kennel Club's Companion Animal Recovery program, the coalition doesn't want to devalue the 125 kHz chips, nor does it want AVID or Digital Angel to go out of business. The AKC-CAR promotes the HomeAgain chip because it's not encrypted like the AVID is, Richey explained.

"The purpose of the coalition is to make sure that all (lost) animals get returned to their owners," she said.

One clear need for global scanners, Richey said, is for identifying ISO chipped pets brought to America. As it stands now, the microchips are worthless because they are undetectable.

"If people are happy with the AVID chip or the HomeAgain chip, that's great," she said. "What we're concerned with is how do we get all animals home? We don't think it's acceptable to say that because you're in America, you need another chip.

"It would be a sad thing if we couldn't come to some kind of agreement. But we feel really strongly that we will be able to. We feel very strongly that public opinion will help us sway these manufacturers into thinking another way."