Technical advice: Microchipping minefields

11 January 2022

Technical advice is our interpretation of how professional standards apply in a particular situation. It is designed to help veterinarians deal with common issues in practice, using their professional judgement to apply the advice to their own situation. It represents our best efforts at the time of publication but standards and expectations change over time and particular care should be used when reading old advice.

What should I do when an animal is presented to me for treatment and a microchip scan reveals the animal is owned by a different person?

Right from the outset it is clear that there is not a straightforward answer to this tricky question, which raises issues with client confidentiality, ownership and the veterinarian’s personal ethics.

Veterinary professionals have been long and strong advocates for microchipping companion animals. Microchipping assists in the retrieval of lost animals and reunification of lost pets with their owners. In addition, many veterinarians will be of the view that, if we promote microchipping, we should attempt to deal with situations like this. However, we it can be a challenging situation for a veterinarian to navigate.

There is no obligation on a veterinarian to scan for a chip to check ownership status. It is, however, good practice to do so. It would be prudent to get a client’s consent before scanning and it may be useful to include a statement about this in the clinic’s client consent form.

The Code of Professional Conduct states that veterinarians must be satisfied that the person presenting the animal is the owner or is the authorised agent of the owner. In most cases the veterinarian is entitled to trust the client’s confirmation that they are the owner and have the authority to consent to any procedures or treatments of the animal. If, on scanning the animal, the microchip is not registered to the person presenting the animal, veterinarians should proceed with caution. There may be a reasonable explanation for the discrepancy, including:

  • the client being the owner’s authorised agent
  • the client may have found the animal as a stray, been unable to find the owner and decided to keep it
  • change of ownership details have not been updated.

A microchip being registered to a person is not conclusive proof of ownership. Ownership can be a complex issue and factors such as possession and maintenance of the animal can be as significant as microchip registration.

Veterinarians are not expected to be the ‘pet police’ and there is no legal obligation to act as such. Usually, ownership is confirmed by the client affirming a statement to this effect in the consent form. Clients may not tell the truth. For example, a family member or partner might act without the consent of the other family members or partner. However, getting further proof of ownership is generally not required.

What can veterinarians do?

As a first step, veterinarians should always talk openly with the presenting client about their concerns, giving them the benefit of the doubt. It would be unwise to accuse a client of stealing an animal without better evidence than microchip registration. If there is an unexplained discrepancy or the client accepts they found (or stole) the animal, an attempt should be made to persuade them to co-operate in notifying the true owner of the animal’s whereabouts and having it returned.

The veterinarian can encourage the client to return the animal, explaining that they (the person presenting the animal) are potentially breaching the true owner’s rights. Alternatively, the veterinarian may wish to urge the person presenting the animal to give the veterinarian consent to pass their details on to the true owner. However, it is the decision of the person presenting the animal, not the veterinarian.

If the veterinarian is not satisfied the client is authorised to consent to treatment, the veterinarian can refuse to treat the animal, except for essential care in an emergency.

Where a veterinarian feels compelled to notify the true owner (or the Police) that the animal has been brought in by another person, they need to consider this decision very carefully. Before taking this action, veterinarians should seek legal advice. Breaching the confidentiality of the client presenting the animal could have serious consequences for the veterinarian.

If the veterinarian does decide to take action, we’d encourage them to document their decision-making process. This might include making a written record of the actions taken and saving any correspondence. Given that this record may contain information private to more than one party it may be prudent to ensure it is stored in such a manner that it could not be accidentally shared to other parties in the future – with this in mind it may make sense to avoid saving it in the patient record.

Passing on the presenting client’s details without their consent would likely breach the Privacy Act and the confidentiality requirements of the Code. However, where there was a compelling reason to believe that criminal activity, such as theft, had occurred, it would be permissible to contact the Police.

Clearly there is no black and white answer. It is strongly recommended that veterinarians take caution. Where possible veterinarians should aim for a consensual outcome.

Please feel free to contact us to discuss individual situations.