A few weeks ago, I sent my black Lab Retriever, Behr, on an extended trip to visit my sister’s family. He would be traveling cross-country via Delta cargo to Los Angeles, with a two-hour layover in a holding area in Atlanta. Having spent a decade reporting at least several times a year on updates in checking your bags on our nation’s airlines, I decided to give Behr an extra layer of protection over his collar and tags – a microchip implant.
RFID (radio frequency identification) tagging isn’t something that’s widely available for bags. After a serious surge in interest a few years ago, only a dozen or so airports have adopted RFID, since the system – which relied on bar-coded, temporary tags – has generally been considered expensive and inefficient. (So far, Qantas is the only airline to adopt a permanent RFID tag for bags.) But while tagging bags hasn’t gained the widespread traction experts thought it would only a few years ago, tagging pets has taken off.
According to my vet, the HomeAgain device he implanted via a big syringe between Behr’s shoulder blades is a tiny cylinder about the size of a grain of rice (and didn’t seem to hurt him at all). It contains a radio transmitter and a tiny computer with an ID number; a microchip scanner passed over the dog’s shoulders emits a low radio frequency that picks up your pet’s unique ID number. The number is kept in a database along with the owner’s contact information.
The $50 or so that I spent bought me the chip, but it also included 12 months of some pretty incredible-sounding benefits, such as “found pet travel assistance” (up to $500 in pet airfare should Behr try to make it back to the East Coast on his own), a service similar to the Amber Alert for children that alerts a network of a half-million volunteer pet rescuers around the country, and a 24/7 medical emergency hotline. HomeAgain says it reunites 10,000 pets with their owners each month.
Of course, Behr’s microchip wouldn’t have saved him if he’d found himself in the same position as this unfortunate dog, who escaped her carrier on a Delta flight the same day as his and got hit by a car. After all, the implants don’t have GPS capability, nor do they use satellite technology. They’ll only help if your dog is actually found. Still, I reasoned that with his microchip, Behr would still have a better chance of reuniting with me than, say, the thousands of chip-free bags that land in Alabama’s Unclaimed Baggage Center each year.
As nice as microchipping sounds, it has its share of detractors. According to Antichips.com, a website run by privacy advocate Katherine Albrecht that’s devoted to protesting RFID microchips (in people and pets), they’re responsible for cancer in lab animals and a couple of dogs. More Orwellian parts of the site allege things like a coming age of governments implanting illegal immigrants, medical insurers imposing penalties on customers that don’t submit to an implant and business owners making it a condition of employment.
On a practical level, the identification problem that used to be prevalent on the pet-rescue side of microchip implants – with competing companies using different frequencies to send their signals to scanners, there wasn’t a universal scanner that could detect all chips – is on its way to being solved, according to the Humane Society. And in September of 2009, petmicrochiplookup.com launched, which searches several of the major U.S. microchip registries for owner information when an ID is entered.
But I’ve also read a number of stories about the medical hazards of microchips in dogs, such as this report about a Chihuahua who bled to death after being implanted in Los Angeles County (which requires dog owners to microchip their dogs or face jail time and fines of up to $1000).
I’m comfortable with the decision I made to microchip Behr. I feel like I made a responsible decision by exposing him to the marginally small health risk of a microchip to offset the greater risk (at least that I perceived) of travel. But I’m ambivalent about the idea of enforced microchipping in some places in the U.S. Do you think pet owners should be allowed to weigh the risks themselves, or is it local government’s responsibility? Weigh in here.