Lost animal dilemma can confound veterinarians

Published on June 01, 2010
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The AVMA has revised a policy on electronic identification of animals to clarify what veterinarians should do when a lost animal is found and ownership is not disputed.

The amended AVMA policy, "The Objectives and Key Elements Needed for Effective Electronic Identification of Companion Animals, Birds, and Equids," was approved by the AVMA Executive Board at its April meeting.

The State Advocacy Committee and the Council on Veterinary Service had each submitted recommended changes.

The board approved adding the following language to the policy, as proposed by both entities: "In the situation where an animal that has a microchip is found and brought to a veterinarian with no claim of ownership, the veterinarian should contact the microchip database company to locate the owner of record. If unsuccessful, the proper animal control authority should then be contacted for assistance, consistent with any local ordinance."

In the past two years, the board had already twice approved revisions to the AVMA policy to provide additional guidance to veterinarians on their obligations concerning microchipped animals.

Then in November 2009, the board considered another proposal submitted by one of its members to add wording to the policy about whether a veterinarian should contact the microchip database company when ownership of the animal is questionable.

The board referred the matter to the Council on Veterinary Service, the State Advocacy Committee, and the Judicial Council.

This March, the COVS endorsed adding the following language to current policy, regarding animals whose ownership is in question: "Unless prohibited by state law, the veterinarian should contact the microchip database company to attempt to reunite the animal with the owner of record in the microchip database."

"The COVS members thought there needs to be some direction given to veterinarians in this difficult position, and they felt if it is not illegal to do so, guidance should be given by the AVMA to reunite the owner of record (with the pet)," said Dr. Patricia L. Wohlferth-Bethke, an assistant director in the AVMA Membership and Field Services Division and staff liaison to the council. "It's not prescriptive, because that's what a lot of veterinarians feel they should do."

The SAC declined to endorse the language proposed by the COVS, and the board agreed to leave it out of the policy.

Adrian Hochstadt, JD, is assistant director of State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs in the AVMA Communications Division and staff liaison to the SAC.

He said the committee didn't want veterinarians to become the arbiters in ownership disputes. So instead, the SAC came down on the side of saying if there's a problem of suspect ownership, the veterinarian can request proof of ownership or refuse treatment.

This decision was made on the basis of ethical and legal concerns involving confidentiality of medical records and potential liability risk, according to the SAC recommendation's background.

To see the revised policy, click here.