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July 15, 2021

Efforts to microchip equids gaining traction

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To identify horses in the past, owners typically had them branded or tattooed, although that wasn’t common. But most horses and donkeys have not been permanently identified in a widespread way. A few years ago, that changed.

Cliff Williamson, director of health and regulatory affairs at the American Horse Council, recalls a symposium in 2017 that focused on implanting microchips in equids.

“We collectively discussed what a national effort would look like, and by the end of that meeting, we agreed that we would not be successful if we mandated it,” Williamson said. “It needed to be a bottom-to-top approach. We would have to figure out a way for this to be a win-win for horse owners, trainers, health officials, and organizations. That was tough. Trying to figure out a way for everyone to find this valuable—it was not intuitive. We noodled on it. At the end, we decided there were a lot of little things that many people could do to try to highlight the value of having a permanently identified horse.”

For example, showcasing anecdotal experiences of owners who reported being able to recover their animals after natural disasters and pointing out the advantages of permanent identification for event organizers managing drug and health check requirements in horses.

Many equine organizations now require a horse to be microchipped before competing in events.

Horse being scanned for a microchip
Many equine organizations now require a horse to be microchipped before competing in events. (Photo by Andrea Evans/US Equestrian)

It is difficult to identify how many horses have been chipped since 2017, but there has been a nationwide increase in the number, Williamson said, and he expects that to continue as owners see the value of permanent identification.

The Equine Welfare Data Collective, a collaboration to gather and analyze data on equids in rescues, has some numbers. Nationally, about 74% of survey respondents who were a part of nonprofits and municipal organizations that take custody of at-risk equids said they don’t microchip equids in custody, and about 26% said they do, according to a report published in 2020.

“Our hope is this being a cultural norm,” Williamson said. “It is easier than taking pictures of horses, easier than lip tattoos, branding. Microchipping is easy. It is the future.”

Some microchip products are also making veterinary medicine easier, such as TempScan microchips, which can monitor temperatures when scanned, or the app EquiTrace, which can record temperature readings connected to a microchip number.

Dr. Alan Dorton, an equine practitioner in Kentucky, has implanted many biothermal microchips, and he uses EquiTrace. The temperature tracking capabilities allow him to record temperature changes to monitor animals, he said.

“I am diagnosing problems in foals before they’re sick, before they’re showing outward signs of illness,” Dr. Dorton said. “The benefits of these are exciting.”

The use of biothermal microchips is also helpful with biosecurity because one person is able to use the scanner to take a temperature—a quicker and easier process than getting a rectal temperature, said Dr. Dorton, who was monitoring temperatures in young foals recently as a new rotavirus strain was found in Kentucky.

Dr. Marta LaColla, who works for Merck Animal Health in the companion animal identification business, said the adoption of microchips as a method of identification is continuously growing in equids, especially in sport horses.

Dr. LaColla said veterinarians should be aware that microchips don’t work like GPS, but EquiTrace, which Merck has a partnership with, does have an option to record a location when a horse is scanned. The lifespan of a microchip and the temperature-sensing feature can be decades. Dr. LaColla noted that the biothermal microchips are useful in monitoring multiple temperatures and identifying trends. According to some studies, she added, microchip migration isn’t likely.

The U.S. could look to the U.K. as an example of equine microchipping becoming the norm. As of Oct. 1, 2020, it is now mandatory for all U.K. equid owners to microchip their animals so their details can be added to the Central Equine Database. The database will enable local authorities to trace owners of abandoned or stolen equids, while also helping to improve animal welfare standards.

Dr. Liz Barrett, a board-certified equine surgeon who is a sports medicine veterinarian, said placing a chip is a very simple procedure.

“About as invasive as vaccinations,” Dr. Barrett said. “It is standard to implant it in the middle of the nuchal ligament on the left side halfway down the crest.”

See AVMA's resources on microchips.

More information about the American Horse Council’s efforts and access to its equine microchip database and further education is at American Horse Council Microchip Look-Up .