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How Do Microchips Work?


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As loving pet parents, we strive to keep our pets happy and safe. Whether the right pet foods, vaccinations or even pet insurance, there’s a lot we can do to ensure our dogs and cats are healthy and ready for the next adventure. But perhaps the most important thing to ensure our pets stay safe is to be prepared for the unthinkable- if our pet gets lost or stolen.

With an estimated 10 million U.S. dogs and cats separated from their pet parents every year, we can’t assume it won’t happen to us. While a good collar with a current ID tag is the best way to make sure our furry pal can find their way back to us, microchipping offers another layer of protection that can help reunite wayward pups and kitties back with their loving parents. Whether a storm, a party or a simple door left open, a microchip could be your pet's savior and should be part of any disaster preparedness plan. 

In this guide, we'll find out why a microchip may be the most important purchase you make this year. But first, let’s explore how they work to bring pets home.

Orange cat getting microchipped at the veterinary office

How microchips work

Introduced in the 1990’s, microchips are very small radio-frequency transponders about the size of a grain of rice. Though small, this device can be a miracle worker!

There’s three parts to a microchip system that allows it to bring pets home.

1. Implanting the Microchip

The tiny microchip is implanted by your veterinarian under the skin between your dog’s or cat’s shoulder blades through a hypodermic needle. The procedure takes seconds, requires no anesthesia, and can often be implanted during a regular veterinary visit. Made with biocompatible materials, the microchip bonds to the surrounding tissue within 24 hours to help it stay put. Without any moving parts or battery, the microchip is only activated when scanned, and never needs to be charged or replaced.

2. Registering the Microchip

Once implanted, you’ll need to register your microchip’s unique ID number with the registry for the manufacturing company. You can also register your microchip on a nationwide registry, such as the AAHA Universal Pet Microchip Lookup. Add all your contact information, including your name, address and phone numbers so that if the microchip is scanned, your pet can be returned to you. If you move or change any contact information, be sure to update your registry too.

3. Scanning the Microchip

When your pet is found, a veterinarian, animal control officer or shelter worker will use a scanner to see if your pet has a microchip. As the scanner passes over the microchip, its radio frequencies activate the chip that then transmits its unique ID number and the name of the manufacturer to the scanner. As long as your information on the registry is current, you can be reunited with your precious pal!

It’s just that easy!

Once placed, you’ll never have to do a thing with the microchip other than enjoy peace of mind that if the unthinkable happens, your pet can more easily be identified. It’s always a good idea, however, to have your veterinarian scan the microchip yearly to be sure it hasn’t migrated and is still functioning properly.

Cream colored Golden Retriever getting scanned for a microchip

Q & A about microchips

There’s a lot of misinformation floating around about microchips, which can sometimes stop pet parents from getting their own pets microchipped. Here are some answers to common questions.

Can a microchip replace an ID tag and collar?

A microchip doesn’t replace a collar and current ID tag, which is still the best way for your pet to find their way home. A neighbor or local citizen will still use a traditional ID tag to return your pet to you. However, if your pet loses their collar, has a breakaway collar, or the tag gets too worn to be read, a microchip can still help identify them since they can’t fall off, and it’s ID number is permanent.

How long do microchips work?

Microchips are designed to work for the lifetime of your pet, and generally last up to 25 years.

Are microchips safe?

In a British database, information for over 4 million microchipped animals revealed that only 391 of them had an adverse reaction to the chip, of which migration was the most common issue. That’s just 0.009% of animals! Overall, microchips are quite safe and worth it for the benefits.

Is getting a microchip painful?

A microchip implantation feels the same as getting a vaccine, so if your dog or cat is sensitive, they may feel a quick sting that disappears in a moment. Generally, most animals don’t feel anything, and once placed, the microchip is completely unnoticeable.

White and black cat getting scanned for a microchip - How Do Microchips Work

Are microchips GPS devices?

Microchips are not GPS devices and are not trackable. Since they have no power source of their own, they only activate when scanned, and only to transmit the microchip’s ID number. However, there are GPS collars and tags available to track your pup wherever they go.

Are there different kinds of microchips?

Different companies do produce microchips that transmit various radio frequencies, including 125-kHz, 128-kHz, and 134.2-kHz. While in the past, scanners were specific for each frequency, today most vets and animal care workers use universal scanners which can detect all frequencies.

Could my pet already have a microchip?

It is possible, as a rescue group, animal shelter, breeder or previous owner could have placed a microchip before you adopted your pet. Look at your adoption papers, or have your veterinarian scan your pet, and if there’s a microchip present, you can update its unique ID number in the registry.

Should I get my pet microchipped for travel?

Yes! Not only is this a furbulous way to protect your pet in case you get separated, but it’s actually required on an International Health Certificate.

A man holding and hugging a white and black dog

Pawmazing reunions thanks to a microchip

If you are still on the fence about getting your pet microchipped, consider these facts from a study of animal shelters’ return to owner statistics:

  • 3 out of 4 microchipped pets were able to be returned home.
  • The return rate for microchipped dogs was 2.5 times higher than those without microchips.
  • Return rates for microchipped cats were a whopping 20 times higher than for those without microchips!

And lastly, there’s the many tales of pets lost for years that were able to return home thanks to their microchip.

Chato the Pug lived in California, but when he went missing, his owner Sandra never lost hope. Years later, when she moved to New Mexico, she kept the same phone number that had been on the many flyers she distribute to find the pup, just in case. After six years, Chato was found on the side of a highway, and it was his microchip that led him back to Sandra.

When George, a gray and brown kitty, had disappeared, his pet parents searched for him for several years, constantly checking the shelter and posting flyers. They were surprised with a phone call 14 years later that reunited them after so long apart. Now, 17 years old, George had lost a significant amount of weight and had become sick. Normally, a stray in his condition would have euthanized, but when a microchip was found just under his skin, he instead found his way back to his loving home and got a second chance. All thanks to a microchip. 

We do our best to keep our pets safe, but all it takes is a moment for our furry furiends to find themselves in unfamiliar territory.  Microchipping is a safe and effective way to protect our pals from the unexpected and give them a greater chance of finding their way back to us. 

Got more questions about microchipping? Chat with a veterinary professional today to find out if a microchip is right for your pet!

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© 2023 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.