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- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
This article was produced in partnership with Tractive, maker of GPS devices for pets.
The possibility of a pet going missing is hard for a lot of pet parents to think about. But it’s an emergency worth preparing for, because the steps you take ahead of time dramatically increase the odds of your dog or cat returning home safely. Microchipping is one of the safest and easiest ways for shelters and vets to identify your pet if they’re found — but they do not cover all your bases.
We break down how pet microchips work and what they can and can’t do to return your furry friend to your side.
What Is a Pet Microchip?
Pet microchips are tiny radio transponders, about the size of a grain of rice, that are enclosed in a glass capsule and implanted under a pet’s skin with a simple injection.
When a vet or shelter technician passes their scanner over the the microchip, it activates, transmitting a pet’s unique ID number to the scanner. That ID number is then cross-referenced with a database of pets to find the pet parent’s contact information.
Dogs and cats can usually be microchipped any time after they reach 8 weeks old.
What microchips are:
- Tiny. They’re small enough that they can be injected with a modified syringe.
- Easy to implant. A pet doesn’t need to be anesthetized, and the process can usually be done at a regular vet visit—no extra scheduling required.
- Safe. Complications are exceedingly rare; the vast majority of pets have no trouble going about their daily business immediately after the procedure.
- Low-maintenance. Once your pet’s microchip is in and registered, you don’t need to replace it. Your vet may periodically scan it at annual wellness checkups to make sure it’s in good working order, and you’ll want to update your registration if your contact information changes—but that’s about it.
- Private. Typically, you only have to enter the information you’re comfortable sharing in the database, like your name and phone number. The databases are not available to the public.
- Cost-effective. Microchips are usually a one-time expense costing between $40 and $60, and the device should last your pet’s entire life—they don’t expire.
How Do Microchips Work?
Microchipping a pet is a two-part process. First, your vet will implant the chip, typically between your pet’s shoulder blades, with a small modified syringe. It takes seconds—a lot like a regular shot or vaccination—and no sedation or anesthetic is required.
Next, you’ll register your microchip with its manufacturer. There are different companies making microchips, but all share their information with the databases vets and shelters check. Often, your vet will help you with registration, or they’ll give you a link to the manufacturer’s website where you can enter your contact information.
Once your microchip is registered, it’s linked with your pet’s unique ID number. That means that any vet or shelter with a universal scanner can scan your pet’s microchip to find their ID number, then visit the database to find your contact info and reunite you with your pet.
Sometimes, if you’ve adopted a pet from a rescue organization or a friend, they may already have a microchip. When that happens, you’ll need to update the microchip’s registration with your information. Your shelter or vet can help you identify the microchip’s manufacturer and ID number, and you can contact the company to make the change.
Limitations of a Pet Microchip
We think microchipping is a good idea for just about every pet—but it’s important to understand the limitations of a microchip so you can can have backups in place should your pet get lost.
It is not an immediate ID tag
The safest combination for your pet is tags and a microchip—each ID can make up for the other’s weaknesses.
ID tags are hugely useful. After all, most people who find a lost pet aren’t going to have a microchip scanner at home. That’s typically something only vets, shelters, and Animal Control agents are equipped with. They will, however, be able to read a pet’s tags and call the number listed there, making your reunion with your friend a lot faster and simpler.
But tags aren’t invincible. They can fall, be dislodged, or fade to the point of illegibility, often without a pet parent noticing. They’re also only as good as your pet’s collar, which can break or be slipped or stolen.
If your pet winds up loose without their tags, it may be nearly impossible to recover them without a microchip. And a microchip, unlike a tag, is unlikely to be lost or damaged.
It does not have tracking capabilities
A lot of people wonder “how can I use a microchip to find my pet?” But microchips aren’t GPS devices, and you can’t use them to track your pet or see their location.
They help in one situation only—though it’s a common enough one to be worth it. A microchip is used when someone else finds your missing pet and takes them to a veterinarian or shelter, where they will be scanned as a matter of course. In short, microchips rely on strangers to find your pet. They don’t give you any power to track them down yourself.
True pet GPS trackers exist for both dogs and cats, and they come with a variety of features like geo-fencing and activity monitoring. Good ones, like the popular Tractive GPS devices, will pair with an app to give you live tracking—the ability to see where your pet is on a map anywhere there’s cell service, with location updates every two to three seconds. (We’ve tried a Tractive ourselves and been impressed.)
The Tractive uses cell service to triangulate your pet’s location, while other models rely on bluetooth, radio frequency, or satellite.
Pet GPS devices typically require an ongoing subscription, and because they’re worn on the collar, they’re subject to the same weakness as tags—getting lost. The safest setup for some pets may be a combination of tag, microchip, and GPS device.
What microchips aren’t:
- ID tags. Most people don’t have a universal scanner, which means they won’t be able to read your pet’s microchip. A tag is still the simplest way to help your pet find their way home.
- GPS devices. A microchip isn’t a homing beacon and won’t let you search for your missing pet. If someone takes your pet to a vet or shelter, a microchip lets them scan your pet to find out who they belong to and how to reach you.
- Set it and forget it. A microchip requires one kind of maintenance from you. If your contact information changes, you’ll need to update your registration so the vet or shelter with your missing pet can get ahold of you.
Is It Worth Microchipping Your Dog or Cat?
Yes! A 2009 study found that microchipped pets who wound up in shelters were reunited with their families more than twice as often as those without microchips, making the tiny devices a valuable backup measure should the unexpected happen.
And the unexpected does happen, even if you as a pet parent do everything right. A fallen tree might break a hole in your fence. A house fire or natural disaster could separate you. Or your pet might do something totally unexpected—bolt when they get spooked by thunder during bath time, or spot an unfamiliar cat and sprint suddenly out an open door.
Should that happen, a microchip can dramatically change the odds of finding your friend again—something we think makes the vet visit well worth the trouble.