Monday, 25 August 2014

Compulsory Micrchipping (Part 1)

Microchipping of pet dogs is set to become law in the UK as of April 2016. It's been put forward by several bodies, including the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the British Veterinary Association that this will:
  • make it much easier to reunite lost pets with their owners
  • assist with the reporting of hereditary health problems
  • act as a key part of the identification for a "pet passport" (and indeed has been a requirement for a dog that is being issued with travel documents since the scheme came in in 2001)
  • protect the welfare of pet dogs by encouraging responsible dog ownership
  • decrease the amount spent on recovering lost and stolen pets (currently £33 million a year)
  • bring dogs and owners back together more quickly and effectively
  • Improve the current situation surrounding stray dogs by minimising the need for unidentified lost dogs to be rehomed
  • Improve traceability generally
All this seems like a great idea, and with 60% or more of pet dogs already being microchipped (the number varies a bit depending on which data set you use - SAVSNET suggests just under 60%; a small recent survey by Animal Friends thinks a little over that), there aren't that many to go until the entire population of just over 8 million pet dogs in the UK is covered. But then what?

"Microchip rfid rice". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -
If we look at the Dog's Trust annual Stray Dog Survey for 2013, it looks like of the 112,000 strays handled by local authorities, around 48% of them were returned to their owners. Optional data provided on the dogs (in this case filled out on around 1 in 10 animals) showed that 11% were microchipped. While that 11% might not be completely right (only 1 in 10 strays had the additional data), if it is close to correct for the data set as a whole then there is a large discrepancy between the percentage of the population of dogs that stray, and the percentage of dogs that are microchipped. All else being equal, you'd expect to see 60% chipping in the general population, and 60% chipping in the straying population. As it is, we have 60% of pet dogs with a chip, but only 11% of dogs in the straying population chipped, suggesting that unmicrochipped dogs are more at risk of being part of the "stray population" than an microchipped dog.
Of the strays dealt with by the local authority, 48% got back to their owners. For those with the optional data filled in (a data set of 20, 976 dogs), 44% were reunited when the owner contacted the pound, 40% by a microchip, 5% by disc details on a collar and 4% by microchip + tag together. What this shows is that microchipping works to get an pet dog returned to its owner - as long as the information held in the microchip database is correct.

The statement that microchipping will help with the reporting of hereditary health problems is likely to be true, though difficult to quantify. The microchip acts as a unique and permanent record of the dog's identity, and thus, data protection rights permitting, any problems can be added to the relevant breed and condition databases either by the owner or by the vet. The issue that I have with this is that these health problems occur almost overwhelmingly in pedigree animals. These animals are already identified by their Kennel Club name and pedigree and, while it's possible to envisage the substitution of one animal for another, it is unlikely to take place for the simple reason that these databases exist at all thanks to the efforts of breed enthusiasts who care about their dogs. It undermines their credibility intensely to suggest that permanently recording the dog's ID via a microchip makes it more likely that accurate hereditary data will be recorded by ensuring the dog under test is the right one.

Microchipping as a way of ensuring the right dog is being transported under the pet passport scheme is already uncontroversial, though as of later this year travellers apparently need to expect larger numbers of spot checks in Europe, and if moving more than five pets together need to make use of a professional transporter (attending shows excluded). See guidance.

Onto the aim of compulsory microchipping that is, to my mind, most troubling. A majority of pet dogs are already microchipped on a voluntary basis, and making it compulsory will pick up the majority of the rest that come from responsible breeders or pass through a rescue. But looking at the statistics on stray dogs, it already appears that not having your pet microchipped is consistent with it being more likely to stray. Are the people who allow their dogs to stray going to have their dogs chipped? Or do we run the risk of those dogs coming into the stray system and simply being abandoned because the owner realises that they need to run foul of the law on compulsory microchipping to get their dog back? In a similar vein, rescues are already over run with Staffy-type dogs, bred to be a status dog or to make a quick buck from selling puppies. Realistically, what are the chances that this situation will change, just because an extra law is involved? These dogs are already being bred without their best interests at heart: if they are already treated as disposable I don't believe having them microchipped will change that.

The Microchipping Alliance (who don't seem to have a website online, but are referenced by a large number of involved parties, including the Kennel Club, Dogs Trust, PDSA, Blue Cross and DogLost, among others) think that annual cost savings to local authorities relating to dog welfare alone could be between £20.8 million and £23.2 million from the first year of introducing legislation. I think, from reading several briefing documents put out by the alliance member bodies, this is primarily due to speed and ease of reuniting a microchipped animal with its owner, and the decrease in number of animals that then have to go into kennels and/or rescue - as supported by bullet points 6 and 7 above, which are statements taken from the the Microchipping Alliance response to the government announcement of the introduction of compulsory chipping.

The last outcome of compulsory chipping is also worthy of further consideration. "Improving traceability more generally" could be any one of a multitude of things,  and is the subject of part 2 of this post, in which I'm looking at what happens when your lost animal is chipped and for some reason it isn't scanned, and whether compulsory chipping will change that.


  1. I'm German, live in the US, and fully support responsible dog ownership (that's what my blog is about!), to include the idea of mandatory microchipping. My two pups are both microchipped, and I am very diligent in making sure that their information stays up to date.

    You make a great point in suggesting that those individuals interested in nothing but a quick buck will likely not adhere to a mandatory microchipping law....

  2. I do feel that that's the one area that lets the whole compulsory chipping thing down. I think it's reasonably self evident that being able to reunite pet and owner easily is a very good thing, and if making it compulsory (I guess that's a Malcolm Gladwell-esque "nudge") increases the uptake still further then so much the better. In my day job I work on a veterinary practice management system that is integrating with the petlog database so any time the owner updates their record with the vet, the microchip info updates, and that should help further with accuracy of info.
    But then...there's always the people who feel the law doesn't apply to them. Or those who don't actually care for the dog itself and treat it as a possession or symbol and not a member of the family. And I don't know whether those dogs will continue to be the ones who end up in rescue - abandoned for taking up too much time or being inconvenient, being bred from indiscriminately, and already not in compliance with dog laws (even the basic stuff like "keep it on a lead in the kid's play area).