Do You Really Own Your Pet – And Could You Prove It?

By: Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM

Yesterday, I was having a discussion with a friend who works for a pet microchipping company.  We were discussing some potential work when we veered off into the benefits and challenges of microchipping pets.  As a long time microchipping advocate, I have personally seen many reunions from a quick scan at our veterinary office or from the shelter.  I love a happy ending!

But what happens when a person finds your pet and wants to keep it…Even if it is microchipped?

Most of you would say, “Well, that is too bad, it’s my dog and the microchip proves it.” Guess what? You would be WRONG!

Microchips are not SOLE LEGAL proof of ownership and here is why…

Often, when pets are microchipped, they are implanted at rescues, from breeders, from shelters, or at a veterinary office.  This can happen at any stage of a pet’s life.  It is then up to the owner of the pet to register the pet’s chip. With some better microchip systems, the registration integrates with the veterinary or shelter software system, and registration is automatic.  But, after that it is the owner’s responsibility to transfer the chip to the new owner if they give the dog away or sell it.  Any microchip provider will tell you that getting owners to follow through 100% of the time on up-to-date registration information is the biggest challenge they face.  I personally moved and forgot to update my pet’s new address in the database.  Fortunately, I worked at a veterinary office at the time so I probably could have still been reunited with Rocky had he been lost. Microchips do help build a case for ownership, but alone are not enough.

Now, if microchips are not legal proof of ownership, then what is? 

Good news! Taking your pet to the veterinarian for a Rabies vaccine and getting a tag or other medical services is one way the courts can look at proof of pet ownership.  That’s right! 

Being a responsible pet owner is actually a great way to prove you own your pet. 

Other established ways are a bill of sale, registration with a kennel club, county or state pet license registration, training certificates, show titles or an adoption contract.  One of the easy ways is also to take lots of pictures of you with your pet throughout its life to show you guys have been together for awhile.  You may want to keep all those cute pics in a folder with dates so you can easily access them just in case. I have even had owners have their pets tattooed to have proof.  Make sure this is on the belly and not the ear because unscrupulous thieves have been known to cut off the ear to remove the tattoos.  This proof of ownership also comes into play with relationship breakups and divorces.  Pay attention to whose name is on the patient record as owner, because this can show who took responsibility for the pet and help prove ownership in a dispute.

It seems counter-intuitive that a Good Samaritan would not willingly reunite a pet with it’s family.  But sometimes if the pet is seemingly not well cared for, the rescuer will not return it to protect the animal.  Instead, they choose to keep it and give it a perceived better quality of life.  Rescuers often assume if an animal is roaming that the owners allow that as a normal state, rather than understanding that circumstances out of the owner’s control often are the reason the animal is on the loose.  Veterinary teams certainly know that July 4th fireworks and Halloween trick or treaters traditionally cause an uptick in pet escape.

The veterinarian has a dilemma when it comes to microchips and found animals that may surprise you.  Legally, they are obligated to honor confidentiality of the client who brings the animal into the office…even it if is not the registered owner

Microchipping relies on the good nature of people to help one another, but it is not legally mandated that veterinarians must notify registered pet owners that their pet has been found.  We instead inform the client in front of us that the animal has a microchip and a registered owner and allow them to make the decision. This is obviously not an issue if the animal is found by animal control or a shelter, so microchipping is very important in these situations.  Most of the time Good Samaritans also want to return the pet to the owner.  But they don’t have to.

Still, microchipping is a service I believe in! 

Data from shelters show that microchipping gets pets back home and keeps them from being euthanized. 

Good Samaritans also return pets the majority of the time when they find it to be an accident rather than negligence on the part of the owner.  My pets will always be microchipped and I will personally be more diligent about keeping my registration up to date if I ever move again.

Veterinary team members should be informed of these rules to avoid making a mistake that could jeopardize client confidentiality.  Hospitals cannot divulge confidential client information -even to law enforcement- without a subpoena.

So, scan every patient during visits to make sure the chip is still viable and in proper placement, but do not step over the legal line when attempting a reunion with found pets.