APRIL 2016 – this is the date by which every dog in England will have to have a microchip by. This comes after an announcement recently by the Environment minister, Owen Paterson. According to figures, nearly 60% of the 8 million dogs in the UK are already chipped, which is excellent, but with so many remaining untraceable, especially in light of the numbers of dogs dumped, lost and euthanised each year due to their owners being impossible to contact, there is still a long way to go.
Of course, the Holy Grail is to arrive at a point whereby every dog owner is responsible and stumps up the negligibly small amount of money required to implant a chip – a quick and safe procedure in the right hands – to ensure that their pets are traceable should they ever go missing, for whatever reason. There have been announcements by various dog charities, most notably Dogs Trust, that they will be willing to supply free microchips to practices in order to spearhead the campaign. This is to be applauded but unfortunately I personally feel the whole matter rather misses the main points.
There are some important questions that are raised by the issue of compulsory microchipping and which we still don’t have the answers for. The first is how will the new legislation be enforced? Even if vets do start getting better at routinely scanning dogs when they come into the clinic and subsequently find dogs that are not chipped, what are they to do? Will it be our responsibility to “dob in” our clients – a rather precarious position to be in – or will we have to issue said owners with an ultimatum of “we either chip your dog now or report you.” The danger of this stance is that we may simply not even see those dogs when they are ill, with the risk being that people attempt more home treatments or abandon their pets in preference to taking them to a vets to seek help. This would definately not be in the best interests of dogs. Are the police really, honestly, going to be that interested in enforcing this law as well? Personally, as much as I support the idea of all dogs and cats being microchipped, with the cuts being placed on the Police and Crime Prevention in general, I would not be overly chuffed at the thought of Police resources being directed to policing and enforcing microchipping. It just doesn’t sit high enough up the Crime and Prevention register to make sense to most people, even to a vet such as myself.
Another issue I can see with the plans are that they are likely to make no difference whatsoever to the small minority of dog owners who are, quite frankly, irresponsible. Good, considerate, well educated, sensible, responsible pet owners listen to veterinary advice and see the sound logic in microchipping – after all, what good reason can there possibly be not to have your pet chipped?! – and are happy to cough up the nominal fee to have a veterinary professional implant it. In the grand scheme of pet ownership costs, the £10-40ish that is charged for the service is insignificant, and as much as offering free chipping makes sense on the face of it as an incentive to owners to do the decent thing, I don’t personally see it doing anything other than take even more revenue out of practice. I would hazard a guess at the very same owners who take advantage of the free chipping service being the exact same ones who would have happily paid for the service anyway, in which case the only difference between the two scenarios is that the clinic loses out, having had to pay for the vet or nurse’s professional time. Once people get used to the idea of free, whatever form it may come in, it is very very difficult to revert back to a paid-for model. If by offering free chipping this would achieve a significant rise in dogs being identified then I would be all for it and personally spearheading a concerted campaign to “Get Your Chips For Free” but I am personally not convinced. Unfortunately no matter how easy it is made for some people, they will choose to ignore advice, even the law. And the key issue is what to do about those owners and those dogs? I am not sure I know the answer to that question.
One very important point that was made in relation to microchipping was the importance of keeping your details linked to your pet’s chip up to date. I have, in my working life, seen many cases of stray animals being handed in, or presented as emergencies, with a positive scan raising hopes of a reunion, or at the least informed owners, only to have those hopes dashed frustratingly when its discovered that the contact information on file is out-of-date and invalid. I would argue that this can even more frustrating that the animal not being chipped at all. I, personally, try and ensure that I scan every cat and dog I see in the clinic, as part of a routine health check, and ask if the details are still likely to be up-to-date. With the busy lives we lead, our pet’s hidden microchip is often the very last thing on our minds and I am fairly sure that if I were to move house, remembering to update my dog’s chip details would slip right to the bottom of my mind. A gentle nudge and reminder, whether from my vet, or even technology in the form of the annual email vaccination reminder or an app on my phone, would be all that is required to prompt me politely into action.
As a vet and, I would like to think, responsible member of society in general, I personally strongly advocate the principle of all dogs and cats being microchipped and see our role, as vets, nurses, pet owners and, well, animal lovers being to continue to educate, advise and guide pet owners to make the right decisions. Unfortunately, as much as the principle behind the changes to the law is sound and well meaning, I don’t see very much changing as a result of compulsory chipping and believe there are still many questions that need answering. Lets hope I am wrong.