Thursday, February 16, 2012

*Microchips versus Municipal Registration for Dogs—Let’s Get Crackin’ Animal Welfare Supporters!

*Warning—slightly controversial post below, read at your own risk!

I recently stumbled onto a fantastic blog dedicated to interesting correspondences, and while perusing through the posts hit the jackpot when I found a letter from children’s book author E.B. White written to the ASPCA back in 1951.  Apparently, he was cited for harboring an unlicensed dog and his amusing response to the citation got me to thinking about animal licensing and identification and a shelter’s role in it all.    
I am just coming off a tour of duty at Chicago’s municipal control facility and learned more than I ever thought necessary about animal licensing laws in Chicago.  The thing that sticks out most for me is that no one really pays attention to the mandatory licensing law and even with incentives built around spaying and neutering and discounts for senior citizens, the compliance rate is pretty abysmal.   In fact, according to this Sun-Times article, Chicago’s compliance rate is under 5% of all dogs in the city, and that is even after a 2005 upgrade of the licensing software to cross reference against the county’s rabies vaccination list.  Obviously, the city and its citizen’s are not paying attention, so what is the point?  From experience, the only time fines are imposed for not having a city dog license is when a dog has a run-in with animal control for some other reason (bite, off-leash, noise ordinance violation, etc), and of course, licensing fees are imposed for any stray animal reclaimed by its owner.  And, that leads me to the meat and potatoes of this post: redemption rates. 

Historically, return to owner rates at Chicago Animal Care and Control hover around 10% (source: CASA; this number is possibly higher, but the data provided do not split intake numbers by type).  This is slightly worse than the suspected national average of 15-20%.  Although not the primary reason municipalities require dog licenses, one of the benefits of it being law should be a higher stray redemption rate because (in theory) we have ownership information about the dog.  To put this in other terms, we can measure a direct increase in Live Release Rates if more dogs were licensed. However, because we have such low compliance, Chicago is never going to see an increase in its rates.  And to make matters worse, some people who do have licenses may not actually put them on their dogs’ collars as eloquently hinted by E. B. White:

So if said dog turned up at the city pound, staff would never know the dog is licensed and ownership information is on record.  This is a missed opportunity to reunite the animal with its owner, and subsequently, increase shelter live release rate.  So, I am proposing it is in the animal shelter’s best interest (regardless of whether they accept strays or not) to encourage their municipality to explore alternatives to dog licensing.  From an animal shelter’s perspective, what is a better method to identify animals?  Microchips!

While not a new technology and already thoroughly embraced by the animal welfare community, microchips provide the perfect substitute for licenses: they are permanent, they are reliable, and they are gaining in popularity.  Many studies have time and again reported a higher rate of return for stray animals with microchips, than those without chips.  And, when disaster strikes, local animal shelters and rescue groups are the first to jump in and assist with the homeless and displaced animals, so again an additional benefit of having the community’s animal population microchipped. 

Can microchips replace traditional dog licenses?
It appears that legislators and local government leaders are aware of the benefits of micochipping, but the new laws are targeted in the wrong direction, or at the least, not in a helpful direction.  I find it odd that a new measure was signed into law in Illinois effective since January 1 of this year requiring all Illinois animal shelters to scan for a microchip at least two times during an animal’s tenure with the shelter in effort to reunite lost pets with their owners.   In Governor Quinn’s own words, this really is making law policies shelters already have in place: “The bill that I’m signing is really a best practices bill, it’s used already in many places in Illinois”.  The Governor is right and in fact, most shelters and rescues have stronger and even more thorough microchip scanning procedures in place.  So, I really don’t see the point to this law—it’s missing the first step: require all animals to be microchipped in the first place!  And again, this is where I see the role of shelters acting as consultants to legislators to steer them in a more productive direction.   

I am not naïve enough to think microchipping is anything more than a substitution of municipal dog licenses and will solve all our animal identification problems.  The same compliance and enforcement issues exist, but from the perspective of the animal shelters responsible for reuniting lost pets and their owners, microchipping will go a whole lot further at effectively accomplishing that task than will paper licensing alone.  So, let’s get crackin’ and start talking to your local City Clerk’s office to encourage a better licensing system. 

Please leave your thoughts about this below, I’d love to have a conversation about the pros and cons of mandatory microchipping, success and failures of communities that already have this as law, compliance and enforcement issues, return to owner rates, etc.


  1. I think that should it become mandated by law - micro-chipping would make a massive impact. The documentary "Mine" which explores the lives of dogs post-Hurricane Katrina has a moral that is lacking in the content. The film portrays the lives of people who adopted Katrina strays only to be taken to court, in some cases, many years later by the original owner. I was hoping that at the end of the piece they would post some kind of pitch for microchipping - it would have solved the problem immediately. And taking into account that the Chicago area has been seeing storms and flooding in higher numbers these past few years, even microchopping for emergency preparedness sake would be reason enough.

    Sure you run into the problem of costliness - but with more demand the figure would eventually go down. Currently someone can have an animal chipped at shelter clinic for only $20.

    The only other con to actual chip pricing is the upkeep. Once the chips are implanted, who's to say the owners aren't amnesiacs who forget to update phone and address changes? A hanging license that expires regularly forces owners to update their contact info - but a permanent chip may lay forgotten, and hence go to waste.

    I think that if the city subsidized microchip implanting/piece costs and had a campaign about the effectiveness that the public would flock.

    But then the question does arise - who will get the plug and reap the financial benefits? AVID, 24PetWatch, etc.. Interesting indeed!

  2. Your next cell phone will have a near field contact chip capable of reading microchips. So then, when you come across a lost dog on the street, you can scan it and return it to its owner.

  3. Under the gudiance of physicians, you should insert microchips beneath the shoulder of pet,cat.