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Microchips, Ownership, & Ethics

Bill Folger, DVM, MS, DABVP (Feline), Memorial Cat Hospital, Houston, Texas

Zandra Anderson, JD, Houston, Texas

September 2016|Peer Reviewed

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Microchips, Ownership, & Ethics

Microchip placement in companion animals has gained widespread acceptance and is recommended by veterinarians. Microchips help identify lost pets and enable many to be reunited with their owners.

Ethical Questions

Bill Folger, DVM, MS, DABVP (Feline), Memorial Cat Hospital, Houston, Texas

Microchips, Ownership, & Ethics

However, when a veterinarian finds a microchip in an animal, the discovery presents him or her with ethical, moral, and legal considerations that are difficult to navigate. Adding to the concern is the fact that the prevalence of companion animals currently microchipped is unknown (J Levy, DVM, PhD, DACVIM [SAIM], email communication, May 2016, and C Royal, email communication, May 2016).

The following information can help practitioners navigate the complex and perplexing situations microchipping presents.


Case. No.1

The following case raises these ethical questions:


  • Should the veterinarian contact the microchip company to identify the person or organization that implanted the microchip?
  • Does microchip registration determine ownership of an animal?
  • What should the veterinarian do if the client demands the microchip registration be ignored?

Mrs. Smith, a long-term client of Dr. Richards at VTB Animal Hospital, calls the practice receptionist to make an appointment for the family dog, Pete, who has received routine care at the practice for many years. The city water meter inspector had accidentally let Pete escape from the backyard, and when he was found roaming the neighborhood later that day, he seemed to be limping. Mrs. Smith wanted Dr. Richards to examine Pete for any injuries. 

Dr. Richards finds a right-stifle soft-tissue injury and recommends appropriate medication. Mrs. Smith then asks about microchipping Pete in case he escapes again. 

Dr. Richards agrees microchipping is a good idea and asks his veterinary nurse for a standard microchip and a universal microchip scanner. However, when he checks Pete before inserting the microchip, the scanner reveals a microchip between the dog’s shoulder blades. 

Dr. Richards tells Mrs. Smith about the microchip. What should he do next?

Contacting the Microchip Company

If the client says he or she does not want the veterinarian to contact the microchip company to identify a previous owner, which is occurring more frequently because microchips are implanted more routinely, that poses many questions for veterinarians and their teams. What are the ethical and regulatory considerations? What are the legal ownership issues? The former are straightforward but cannot be answered without knowing the latter.

True ownership can rarely be established beyond doubt.

Microchip placement in companion animals is now widely recommended by veterinary institutions, animal control agencies, animal shelters, and animal welfare organizations, so more and more veterinarians are faced with this dilemma. Veterinarians always want to do the right thing, but the right thing is not always clear when the client insists no attempt be made to contact the person or agency that placed the microchip.

Defining Ownership

Is the very fact of finding a microchip evidence of ownership? There are conflicting possibilities:

  • The person or agency that originally microchipped the animal may or may not have been the legal owner. Evidence shows that ownership information is updated in only one-half of microchipped animals,1 meaning the actual owners of the millions of microchipped dogs and cats taken in by animal control agencies, shelters, and humane organizations every year frequently cannot be ascertained.
  • Microchips identify the pet but not always the owner. For example, a person may know a car’s VIN number, but that does not mean he or she is the legal owner. The car’s actual owner will have a state-issued title for the car with that VIN number. Property ownership requires legally sufficient ownership records as required by the state or local jurisdiction.
  • No state laws govern transference of microchip ownership. A pet may have been surrendered to an animal shelter or seized by an animal control agency and adopted after the mandatory wait period. A pet may have simply been given to a friend or coworker. In such cases, the pet’s transfer from one owner to another is not legally recognized.
  • Most importantly, many microchips are never registered, making it impossible to establish any ownership.1 Pets are considered property in every United States jurisdiction, but simply implanting a microchip does nothing to establish ownership.
  • However, there is good news. Rabies vaccination registrations, collars with identification or rabies vaccination tags, photos and videos, and physical possession of the pet are all indications of ownership, and in some jurisdictions, ownership can be established by licensure. Still, true ownership can rarely be established beyond doubt.

Ownership is a legal concept, not a veterinary professional or ethical concept. Veterinarians are not qualified to establish legal ownership, nor are they qualified to be the pet detective or pet police. (See Microchips & Ownership: Current Laws Provide No Clear Answers)


The ethical concerns for this case are more easily understood and clearly defined. Dr. Richards, Mrs. Smith, and Pete have enjoyed a long-standing, established veterinarian–client–patient relationship. In most states, the administrative rules governing the practice of veterinary medicine concerning the confidential relationship between the veterinarian and the client is perfectly clear: a veterinarian shall not violate the confidential relationship between the veterinarian and the client. The concept of client confidentiality as an ethical construct is sacrosanct, with only a few exceptions. 

Exceptions to the Veterinarian–Client Confidential Relationship

  • A written or oral waiver of confidentiality by the client of record
  • Receipt of an appropriate court order or subpoena
  • The necessity to substantiate collection of a debt
  • The necessity for disclosure of rabies or a communicable disease2

The AVMA 2015 Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics3 suggest 2 rules:

  • Honesty with the client
  • Respect for the law

In addition, the principles clearly state that the veterinarian shall respect the privacy of the client—and protect that privacy unless required by law. Medical record information must also be considered confidential and cannot be released except in a situation required by law (eg, if a lawsuit were filed and the practice served with a subpoena) or by owner consent.2 

Therefore, in this case:

  • Dr. Richards should not contact the microchip company to identify the person or organization that implanted the microchip.
  • Microchip registration does not determine ownership of an animal.
  • Dr. Richards must agree to Mrs. Smith’s request that the microchip registration be ignored.

Dr. Richards would be acting unprofessionally and unethically if he disclosed any information about Pete to a third party. Even disclosing information from Pete’s medical record would expose him to regulatory action, such as violation of client confidentiality, by licensing authorities.

Case. No.2

This case, a recent event at the author’s practice, raises a different ethical question:

  • Should the veterinarian insist a Good Samaritan allow the practice to identify the registrant of a microchip found in a rescued animal?

On his way home from work, Mr. Jacob notices a young cat that seems to be having trouble moving on the side of the road near his house. Mr. Jacob is a Good Samaritan, so he stops to render assistance and then calls the veterinary practice he is familiar with, which fortunately is just around the corner. He is advised to bring the injured cat to the practice for examination. 

Ownership is a legal concept, not a veterinary professional or ethical concept.

Dr. Anderson determines that the cat has a fractured femoral head and neck. She discusses the injury with Mr. Jacob, who wants to help but is intimidated by the financial estimate.

Dr. Anderson also notices the cat has been neutered, recommends scanning for the presence of a microchip, and finds a standard chip. Mr. Jacob gives Dr. Anderson his consent to identify the microchip, so the veterinarian accesses the AAHA Universal Pet Microchip Lookup and discovers a shelter 5 miles away registered the microchip.

Now, Mr. Jacob can make 1 of 2 decisions: 

  • He can give Dr. Anderson his consent to attempt to identify the current owner through the shelter.
  • Because of the cat’s injury, he can decide that the current owner is not taking acceptable care of the animal and he does not want Dr. Anderson to contact the shelter. Mr. Jacob is Dr. Anderson’s client, so no one working at the practice is allowed to contact the shelter because that would constitute a violation of confidentiality.

This case also raises a third possibility, which the author experienced at his own practice. 

Without informing the attending veterinarian, a practice team member working on the case identifies the microchip number, obtains the name of the microchip company, and contacts the company to determine the microchip registration information. Compounding the dilemma, the microchip company may contact the official designated microchip registrant (who could be a shelter, agency, or owner) directly and communicate the contact information of the practice or agency that made the inquiry. This may in turn lead to the registrant contacting the veterinary practice directly. (When the registrant called the author’s practice, it was explained that the practice could not give out any information about the client because of confidentiality.) 

Although no official data is yet available, this situation now occurs frequently, indicating the importance of training the veterinary team explicitly about the ethical and regulatory considerations in these cases.

In this case, Dr. Anderson encourages Mr. Jacob to allow her to contact the shelter because the actual owners, if they can be identified, may want to take care of their pet and assume the financial cost to treat the injury. However, if Mr. Jacob, who is the client in this case, had refused consent, Dr. Anderson would have had to abide by his decision.


No matter the scenario, veterinary professionals are bound by the same ethical and regulatory considerations—no information within the veterinarian–client–patient relationship can be divulged, other than under the few exceptions listed. Until laws are enacted in each state to define what constitutes pet ownership, this will continue to be an uncomfortable collision of regulatory, legal, and ethical considerations. 

References and Author Information

For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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