Having a pet run away or stolen can be devastating, and microchips are routinely called the best way to reunite families with a lost pet. But Contact 5 uncovered the laws surrounding microchips, and finding a lost animal is even more complicated than companies let on.
Here's how microchips work. The chips are placed below the animal's skin and have a specific, corresponding serial number. Pet owners should register the chip with the manufacturer. When the chip is scanned, the number shows up, and that number can be traced to the person registered. A name, address and phone number should be given to the company that made the chip, along with the chip number.
That's exactly what Gary Brooks of Vero Beach did when he rescued Smokey.
“Smokey was found under two tons of scrap metal when he was two days old. I said that one's mine,” said Brooks.
Smokey became part of the family 4 and a half years ago. “Nickname was, the best cat ever. That's what we called him.”
Then three years ago, Smokey just disappeared. Brooks said Smokey was an indoor/outdoor cat but never really traveled beyond the driveway. He remembers a neighbor moving around the days Smokey went missing, and thinks maybe he got caught in their moving truck. Brooks said Smokey was a nosey cat.
Brooks put up flyers, contacted the local animal shelters and vets.
Yet Brooks said he always held out hope, someone would bring Smokey home, because the company “Home Again” had micro-chipped his beloved cat.
“The purpose was, if he ever got lost, I want to be able to get him back,” said Brooks.
This year, the day after Thanksgiving, this year, “Home Again” called Brooks.
“The woman wanted me to give my permission to relinquish my ownership of the chip that they put in him. So that the new owners could have their information put on it.”
Brooks said absolutely not.
A spokesperson for Home Again told Contact 5, "We contacted him because we received a transfer request from the person who is currently in possession of Smokey. We did not have a missing report for this cat in our database."
“Now it's like we're losing him all over again,” said Brooks.
And the law isn’t necessarily on Brooks’ side. Florida law does not require vets to scan for a microchip.
“We are not thinking you stole the dog. We're thinking this is your dog,” said Doctor Xavier Garcia of the El Cid Animal Clinic.
Even if they do scan for a chip, in most states, including Florida, there is a client confidentiality law that binds a veterinarian from revealing medical information about a pet to a third party. A client is considered the person that brings an animal in. The client may be not be the owner.
Some local vets, like the Healing Arts Veterinary Center on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, adopt policies requiring all new pets brought in, be scanned for a microchip, to avoid ownership struggles.
When asked about Gary Brooks' ownership struggle, Home Again says they are "a pet recovery database, committed to reuniting pets and their owners. Microchipping a pet and registering with a recovery service helps to identify a lost pet, but by registering the pet, it does not mean proof of ownership."
In other words, if someone finds your animal and wants to return it, the recovery database can identify who the animal belongs to. But if someone wants to keep your animal, the microchip does not guarantee you’ll get it back.
“If that's all the case, it's nothing more than a scam as far as I'm concerned,” said Gary Brooks.
Eric Flowers of the Indian River Sheriff’s Office says under the law, just a microchip alone is not proof of ownership.
“We don't have the ability to say, yes this belongs to you, this belongs to you. We rely on the courts to make the determination. The law views a cat essentially as property, a unique piece of property as well because it's one that can get up and walk away,” said Eric Flowers.
Law enforcement can typically only get involved with a criminal investigation, although there are exceptions.
“Obviously the laws and rules about this are terrible,” said Gary Brooks.
The Indian River Sheriff’s Office strongly suggests that owners keep a log and receipts of all the expenses related to their pet. Vaccine papers/certifications can be helpful too. That, as well as other evidence can help prove an animal belongs to you.
The Indian River Sheriff’s Office did call Home Again on Gary Brooks’ behalf, they are waiting on more information from the microchip company. Home Again says they will work with the police, but only if they present a court order.