Microchipping- What's the Issue?

Incompatible chips and scanners can leave owners doubtful about implanting their horse
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Incompatible chips and scanners can leave owners doubtful about implanting their horse
LifeChip equine microchip.

LifeChip equine microchip.

This past weekend, a client asked me about microchipping one of her client’s horses. She told me that her client wanted a microchip implanted in her horse, but that another veterinarian advised against it. She explained that the other veterinarian was down on microchips due to the fact that there are too many different systems on the market and no single, central registry in which an owner can enter contact information, the microchip number and descriptive information about their horse.

While all of this is true, many still feel that microchips are a relatively easy way to add a layer of protection for their horse in the event that something awful occurs. In case you need a reminder of what can happen - here are three scenarios:

1. Theft - Although less common now that horse slaughter takes place only outside the United States, it is still possible, especially in states that border Mexico and Canada. The problem is that horses are not scanned at border crossings or at slaughter houses, so the chip is unlikely to help much here.

2. Disaster - It seems that disasters are happening with increasing frequency these days. Natural disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes are constantly battering our country. Man-made disasters and acts of terror seem to be commonplace. In these scenarios, animals are often caught in the turmoil, despite efforts to get owners to create and practice a disaster plan to address evacuation and sheltering needs (see February 2013 HJ). It is very likely, however, that displaced horses that end up in emergency shelters during disaster would be scanned for identification chips since most municipal disaster plans and humane sheltering groups have policies to scan animals on intake. A chip may pay off in this scenario.

3. Loose Horse - What if you are on vacation and your horse gets loose? It will likely be picked up by animal services. They will scan the horse on intake as a matter of procedure. Imagine how much easier this mess would be to clean up if they could dial your number after checking a microchip number in a database?

When you think about the three scenarios above, #3 is most likely to happen, with #2 and #1 being a close tie for second place. Given that a microchip can serve you well in two out of the three scenarios, it starts to make more sense to implant one. Also, don’t forget that many breed registries including most of the warmblood breeds and the Arabian breed registry require microchips in order to register a horse.

If you decide to implant a chip…

Microchip implanting is safe, quick and pretty simple. The microchip is about the size of a grain of rice and it is coated with a silicon coating that helps secure it in place underneath the skin midway down on the horse’s left neck in the vicinity of the nuchal ligament. There are chips on the market today such as the LifeChip, Pro-ID Equine chip, Home Again, and AVID Euro Chip that can be read by any type of scanner.

Although the latter two were originally developed for dogs and cats, they have been used for years in horses. All of these chips are good because they are ISO 11784 compliant. What is this, might you ask? ISO 11784 is an international standard set forth by the International Organization of Standardization that regulates the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) microchipping of animals. Some of the standardized specifications of the chips (also known as transponders) include a 15-digit code and FDX-A&B typing (which refers to the ability of the chip to transmit information when scanned at different frequencies). Anyway, enough geek-speak. One thing you may want to keep in mind- out of all the chips listed above, only the LifeChip by Destron Fearing is approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Once you implant a chip - it is best to register it with as many microchip databases as possible. Most of these databases offer lifetime enrollment for a single charge ranging from free to about $25. They all allow unlimited edits to contact information. Here is a list of the bigger databases:

· Pettrac by AVID

· Home Again

· Found Animals

· NetPosse Identification Program

· The Jockey Club

· Equine Protection Registry

This all seems easy, so… why is there controversy?

Lots of controversy exists about the standardization of microchip (RFID transponders) because there is not all companies produce chips with a 15-digit code. Some make 9-digit codes, some make 10-digit codes. In addition, there are still incompatibilities between certain chips and certain scanners. 

See, when this whole craze began back in the 1990s, the United States developed RFID chips that could be ready by a 125 kHz scanner. Meanwhile, horses in the rest of the world were being implanted with RFID chips that could only be read by 134.2 kHz scanners. Scanners are expensive, so the veterinarians and government agencies habitually have held onto their single-frequency scanners over the years, which has consequently allowed horses with incompatible microchips to slip by them.

The newest scanners read both the US Standard (125 kHz) and the International microchips (134.2 kHz) while the old scanners read only the US Standard microchips. The newer scanners are known as ISO compliant scanners and are made according to specifications set forth in ISO 11785 by the International Organization of Standardization. Here is more information about ISO chips and scanners.

Bottom Line: Due to problems with chip and scanner standardization, there is still a chance that even if scanned, your horse’s chip would not successfully be read by the scanner. But, my final thought is: There is definitely no chance that your horse will register on a scanner if you never implanted a chip in the first place.

Editor's Note: Are you an FEI-level competitor? You may enjoy John Strassburger's comments about the FEI's microchip rule beginnings. 

See also Dr. Deb Eldredge's article on other methods of equine identification.