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Navigating the Microchip Maze

International standards are complicating microchipping issues for shelters  

International standards are complicating microchipping issues for shelters  

Pepsi or Coke? IBM or Mac? Ginger or Mary Ann? 125-kilohertz microchip or 134-kilohertz microchip? There are some arguments that just won’t die, and the battles over identification microchips are the sheltering field’s answer to the Cola Wars. And just when you thought microchipping had come down to an uneasy coexistence between the two main players, along comes an R.C.Cola to muddy the waters.

Its name is 24PetWatch, a Canadian company that has entered the U.S.market with an ambitious plan: to gradually convert shelters and veterinary clinics from a 125-kilohertz microchip to a 134-kilohertz microchip, following the lead of many other countries that already comply with guidelines set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

© Jodi Frediani
Before you insert that chip, make sure you’re aware of the latest developments in microchip identification—and help your adopters stay up to date, too.

While some herald the move to international compatibility as an idea whose time has come, others are hesitant. Most agree that most shelters and veterinary clinics in the United States aren’t currently equipped with the technology required to read the new chips; some also believe that 24PetWatch won’t be financially able to follow through with its plan to blanket the entire country with free scanners. And AVID, one of two companies with the largest share of the U.S. market, recently filed a complaint with the Oregon Department of Justice against a shelter that was planning to make the switch.

For those who’ve been in the field a while, the conflicts now arising from the entrance of a new player into the market bring back sore memories. John Snyder, former head of Alachua County Animal Services in Florida, recalls the scene when chips and scanners first came on the market. At the time, microchips and scanners were made by three companies, all of which were protecting their technology by making their chips and scanners incompatible with those of other companies. For animal shelters, this created an untenable situation, says Snyder, now the director of program management for the Companion Animals section of The HSUS.

“Our staff were receiving animals and having to scan each one two times using several different scanners because none of them could read another company’s chips,” he says. The process of scanning animals—particularly shy, feral, or fractious animals—was time-consuming enough without having to do it multiple times to compensate for the incompatible technology.

The onerous process and the fear of missing a scanned animal led many shelters to distrust microchipping as an identification method, and many refused to use the technology at all. Not only was the system unrealistic for shelters, but many were concerned about their own liability if—due to time constraints or the incompatible technology issue— they missed a chip in an animal they scanned.

Though some organizations continued to view chipping technology as a passing fad, what unfolded next was a great example of the effectiveness of consumer demand. Working through the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators (SAWA), U.S. shelters came up with a requirement for microchipping: If they were going to do it, they wanted one scanner that would pick up a signal in two or three passes, not three scanners that all took several scans to read a chip properly.The task force told the microchip companies that unless they came up with a process that was more feasible for overburdened animal care and control agencies, they wouldn’t be getting much business from the sheltering field—and those in the sheltering field, not veterinarians, were the ones most likely to receive chipped animals.

After years of hearing this feedback, in 1996 the industry responded, and the companies worked together to produce “universal” scanners that would read all of the chips implanted in animals, even if the chips were from a different manufacturer.

But even after coming to an agreement, the “truce” between the companies has been an uneasy one. The chips AVID sells in the U.S. are protected by encryption. When a scanner from another company detects an AVID chip, the encryption means that the reader will only display the message “AVID detected.” The person scanning then knows that the animal needs to be scanned by an AVID reader. Though that information is still helpful in tracking down owners, the added logistical layer creates enough of an extra burden to scare off some potential users.

The ISO Controversy

While most people refer to the current scanners as “universal,” they aren’t universal in the way the word usually implies. “Universal” should mean that it will read every chip in the universe; in fact, the current “universal” readers are really only United States readers.

Most of the microchips currently implanted in the animals in the United States emit a radio signal at 125 kilohertz (kHz). This frequency doesn’t meet the standards developed for microchips by the International Organization for Standardization, which operate at 134 kHz. (This standard was decided in 1996 and reaffirmed by members of the international group—including representatives from the U.S.-based American National Standards Institute—in 2001.)

Why are ISO standards important? The ISO, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is devoted to developing “standards” for products all over the world; along with examining the quality of products, the organization tries to ensure that companies are producing technologies that will be compatible with one another. Such compatibility affects an endless number of goods and services we use every day.

In the microchipping field, the ISO standard has been adopted fairly quickly by many other countries. A member survey conducted by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association in 2002 found that adoption and implementation of ISO-standard readers and microchips for small animals was “well advanced ... in Western Europe and Australia/New Zealand, achieving market dominance in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, in its infancy in Canada and South America, and non-existent in the United States and Africa.”

In spite of the trend toward ISO chips in other countries, however, the standard itself is not without problems, says Barbara Masin of Trovan. Because ISO standards for microchips have been published and any company can decide to start making ISO microchips, it is technically possible for an ID number to be duplicated, Masin says. For example, a company could start promoting their chips by allowing customers to pick their own microchip ID numbers; if the customer selects a number already in use, it is possible that his pet could have the same ID number as a pet on the other side of the world.

The chances of this creating a problem for shelters—which use microchipping technology primarily to reunite pets with their owners—are very slim. But the companies that have been producing microchips in the United States for years are worried that any problems with the ISO-standard chips will deter consumers from using chips at all, says Masin.

Masin says the companies involved often take a “Deal with problems later, sell product now” approach to the ISO issues. “From our point of view, that’s not a good approach,” she says. “It can come back and give the whole industry a black eye, because when problems arise, John Q. Public is not going to look at this and say, ‘This is a problem with the ISO standard.’ He’s going to say, ‘Microchipping is bad.’ ”

Though they are already producing them for customers in international markets, U.S. manufacturers are not currently implementing ISO-standard chips domestically. It’s no doubt in part due to the problems Masin mentions, but it certainly is also market-driven: Having a product whose market is largely in compliance with international standards tends to open it up for more competition from new manufacturers. And while the price drops that often accompany increased competition may be very good for the shelters and veterinarians who’ve been the consumers of microchipping technology, it may mean a decline in profits for the companies already in the market.

The financial concerns aren’t all coming from the microchip companies, though. Cash-poor shelters and veterinarians are also worried about the cost of making the switch: According to the survey from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, member vets in the United States have been slower to adopt ISO technology because of the costs of upgrading their scanners.

Due to the enormous costs of making a safe, large-scale transition to the new frequency, many communities are electing to stick with the chips they know best. The savvier consumers are using the market threat of the ISO standard to negotiate better deals with the U.S. companies they’ve been working with. In Colorado, for example, Jed Rogers, a veterinarian who chairs the Animal Issues Committee of the Denver Area Veterinary Medical Society, says the ISO threat opened the door to better prices from his microchip provider, Schering-Plough.

“We’ve been grappling with whether we’ll be better off going with 24PetWatch or are we better off sticking with Schering,” says Rogers. “We’ve already used the 24PetWatch thing with Schering to get a slightly better deal. That was my intent from the very beginning—get a better deal and stick with Schering, and then at some point if the ISO becomes a more prevalent technology in the United States, then it would make sense to do that.”

At this point, Rogers says, switching over presents too large a risk for most shelters—and not just a financial one.

Tips on Chips

If your organization is not yet chipping animals, it might be wise to wait and see which way the ISO winds blow before committing to one standard or the other. But if your shelter is already using microchip technology, there are a few steps you should take to protect your animals, your adopters, and your agency.

  • Ask your microchip provider for a truly universal reader—that is, one that will detect both older 125-kHz microchips and the newer 134-kHz ISO chips. If the ISO standard becomes more popular, having a universal reader will be necessary to protect animals in your community.
  • Check out local and state laws. A few states now have laws requiring microchip I.D. for all animals adopted from shelters, and some of those laws specify a requirement for the frequency or manufacturer of the chip.
  • Don't rely on what any of the companies say about their products or those of their competitors: Test the chips and scanners to make sure they work for your organization. Are they easy and quick for staff to use? Are they reliable? See for yourself before making a decision. Remember that weak batteries or proximity to metal or fluorescent lights will affect the performance of any scanner.
  • Don't let a bad experience with any one company’s technology shape your view of the developments in the microchipping field. For example, if you find a problem with an ISO scanner, don’t assume that it has to do with problems with the ISO frequency. It may simply be a faulty scanner. Right now only a few companies are pushing ISO technologies in the United States, but if the market opens up, more ISO readers will become available. Even now, you can get a scanner that will read ISO and U.S.chips not only from 24PetWatch, but from other companies such as the Canadian-based Microchips4Solutions. If you’re in Canada, you can get one from AVID, too.
  • Consult with other humane societies, animal control agencies, and veterinarians in your area to make sure you move in the same direction together. There must be a base number of readers that can read the ISO-standard chip before shelters and veterinarians start implanting it in their adopted animals.
  • Whichever direction you go, provide your adopters with information about microchipping technology. Give them the basics about the ISO issue in writing with your other adoption documents. If you decide to switch to the ISO chip, the information you provide to adopters should include the fact that the technology is in a transitional phase, and that the microchip implanted in their pet might not be readable in areas of the country that have not switched to the ISO standard.
  • Many national animal protection organizations have sponsorship agreements or other ties to one microchip company or another. Be aware of these links when considering the organizations’ advice about microchipping.

Like Listening to Two Radio Stations at Once  

Due to the different frequency emitted by chips in the United States, animals who have been chipped in another country are not protected here. The scanners used in most shelters will not only fail to read an ISO chip; they won’t even detect that one is present. If a chip emitting a signal at one frequency is scanned by a reader designed to pick up another, the result is very much like what you get when you tune your radio to a number between two stations, says Mary Metzner, former president of the National Animal Control Association and now a sales representative for AVID. “You won’t be able to hear what’s on either of the two stations—it will be garbled,” says Metzner.

A great many animal health and protection organizations—including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—want to change that. These groups have recommended that U.S. animal shelters and veterinarians make the transition to the ISO standard, noting that the longer American users wait, the tougher the eventual transition will be. All specify that ensuring that shelters and veterinarians have scanners that will detect ISO chips is the first step in the process.

It’s the existing infrastructure of readers that’s creating some of the reluctance to make the switch, says Walt Ingwersen, DVM, editor of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association and a paid veterinary consultant for 24PetWatch. “For any company to come in, it would have to accept the fact that, if there is this resistance by other manufacturers in the United States, any new company is going to have to bear the burden, the capital expense, of upgrading readers,” Ingwersen says. “So that’s obviously a fairly formidable capital expense and has scared off some potential entrants.”

That first big step is being taken now: the Canadian 24PetWatch has started to promote its ISO-standard scanners and chips to American shelters and veterinarians; the company has been exclusively endorsed by Petfinder.com.

Response to the new company and to the possibility of moving toward an ISO chip has regenerated all the old frustrations about incompatible technologies. Fear of lost business and the potential for chipped animals to go undetected are creating great concern among both shelters and the existing microchipping companies.

Claims of faulty scanners abound, and some people charge that the price of using an ISO chip—without adequate technology in place to detect it—could be an animal’s life.

Early Adopters, Step Forward

Some shelters, however, are welcoming the arrival of the ISO chips. The identification chips the company is selling are being marketed in coordination with a health insurance package for adopted shelter pets. Purchase of insurance by adopters is not required, but the dual offer sweetens the deal for shelters looking to provide something extra. The prospect of obtaining ISO-standard chips, a scanner that’s more truly universal (it will detect both ISO chips and the existing American standard chips, according to the company’s representatives), and a discount insurance package for new owners has made 24PetWatch attractive to some executive directors, including Sharon Harmon of the Oregon Humane Society.

Harmon recognizes that the transition is one that would have to take place over the long term. In order to ensure that no animals slip through the cracks due to the type of microchip they’ve been implanted with, every shelter will have to have a scanner that will detect both the ISO frequency and the old 125-kHz chips. 24PetWatch says it’s committed to making that change: No ISO chips will be distributed until shelters and veterinarians in a given region have been provided with compatible scanners.

Earlier this year, Harmon invited Oregon veterinarians and shelters to an open house to discuss the possibility of making the transition to the international standard. What’s tempted her, she says, is not only a belief in the need for ISO compatibility, but the fact that, as more shelters choose to treat rather than euthanize animals with medical conditions, pet health insurance will become increasingly desirable for shelter animals.

The meeting led to a general consensus that moving towards the ISO chip was a good idea, says Harmon, and 24PetWatch began distributing scanners to shelters and veterinarians around the state. Harmon wanted to make sure that every shelter in the area had the ISO scanner, and by October, she was confident enough to make the switch.

Harmon was also attracted to the company because she believes its sales of pet health insurance will help 24PetWatch finance the maintenance of its database of current contact information for owners of chipped animals—something that’s reportedly been a problem for animals chipped with the current microchips. The two databases overseen by AVID and Schering-Plough’s HomeAgain system haven’t always been kept up to date—mostly due to poor owner compliance resulting from the cost of registering address information or from apathy on the part of the pet owner following an adoption.

In the case of 24PetWatch, Harmon says, revenue generated by the sale of pet health insurance will allow the company to spend money maintaining the database. Registration of an animal is free to adopters, and the company is allowing people who’ve already had their animals implanted with competitors’ chips to register their pets in the 24PetWatch database.

Send in the Lawyers  

AVID and Schering-Plough’s HomeAgain system do not offer registration to those using competitor’s chips. However, Metzner says that the two registries run by AVID and HomeAgain work together in other ways; database administrators will call each other if they receive a call about an animal with a number not registered in their own database.

The companies are protecting their products; AVID has filed a complaint with the Oregon Department of Justice against the Oregon Humane Society, which, until recently, was their biggest customer in the state of Oregon. Harmon isn’t worried about the legal action as far as her shelter’s operations are concerned—the Oregon Department of Justice has already informed the shelter that they regard the complaint as an instance of corporate bickering and don’t intend to investigate. But Harmon is concerned that fear of lawsuits will keep other shelters from moving in the direction she believes is most progressive.

“No humane society wants controversy—we get enough as it is,” says Harmon. “So when people hear threats of suits, you know, they get nervous. ... But any kind of technological change has arguments—I’m sure that when we went from 8-tracks to cassettes there were some hard feelings. ... You’ve gotta realize, you’re just a dinosaur stuck in the La Brea tar pits at this point.”

While Ingwersen says that veterinarians sometimes want more say in the direction that microchipping goes, he notes that veterinarians aren’t the ones with the biggest stake in its success or failure—it’s the shelters that will end up steering microchipping technology in one direction or another.

“The focal point has to be the shelter community because it’s the principal point of pet recovery,” says Ingwersen. “Even if [veterinarians] were to get an animal with an ISO chip in it and the reader doesn’t read it, they wouldn’t put the animal to sleep. They’d take the animal to a shelter. ... So all roads lead to the shelter, so that’s the principal focus.”

Advocates of the ISO switch say that in order to guarantee a safety net for newly chipped animals, at least 80 percent of shelters and veterinary clinics in a given region need to have scanners that can read both the current U.S. chips and the new ISO chips. Until that happens, the chances for a chipped animal to fall through the cracks remain high.

The situation is increasingly complicated, but some believe that one thing could simplify it quickly. Both Rogers, who plans to stick with the American standard frequency, and Ingwersen, who advocates going ahead with a gradual switchover, say that consumers need to have a truly universal scanner available to them. A scanner that can read all of the available technologies—without having to deal with the complications that encryption brings—would make microchipping technology much easier for consumers to trust and adopt. While the scanners that read ISO and American chips come close, they are still stymied by the encrypted AVID chip; as long as AVID’s chip remains encoded, the scanning process will continue to involve either multiple readers or a lot of extra phone calls to different databases, says Rogers.

Without the presence of encrypted chips in the U.S. market, Rogers says, the companies already selling microchips domestically would have developed a more loyal customer base, and would be in a position to say to the new competition, “No, we were here first, so you adopt our frequency.”

But the divisive tone the microchipping debate has taken on seems to indicate that the days of peace, harmony, and technological compatibility remain a long way off.

 

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