The challenging art of tracing equine microchips

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Reading the microchip of a competition horse.
Reading the microchip of a competition horse.

A publicly accessible online tool to look up horse microchips is needed to streamline the trace-back process, an equine epidemiologist says.

Efforts to trace ownership through a microchip can at times be a grueling process and there is the ever-present risk of a permanent dead-end, says Angela Pelzel-McCluskey, who works for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture.

She says owners have been implanting microchips into horses for years to establish unique and unalterable identification. However, the equine industry must understand that simply implanting microchips in horses is not enough.

“While the safety and practicality of this practice is well-established, there is little information available about traceability of microchips,” she writes in the latest issue of Equine Disease Quarterly.

“Given the long lifespan of horses, the ability to trace microchips over many years is necessary.”

She says the reasons to trace microchips are few, but are vital when encountered.

Officials use the microchip of a horse involved in a disease investigation to trace back to other exposed horses or premises. First responders to natural disasters have major challenges in identifying ownership of displaced horses.

“Individuals searching for a lost or stolen horse have a critical reliance on the traceability of microchips,” she says. Rescue groups come across horses that have lost their identity and try to trace any permanent identification available to uncover their history.

“Current methods available for tracing microchips are limited,” Pelzel-McCluskey says.

Each trace begins with scanning a horse with a microchip-reading device and obtaining a microchip number. But what next?

If the horse’s appearance or history presents clues, its breed or discipline group might have its information.

“This is often the best place to start. If there is no obvious place to begin the inquiry, then one contacts the manufacturer of the microchip. The first three digits of the microchip number indicate the manufacturer or country code, which can be looked up online.

“The manufacturer provides contact information for the distributor to which the microchip was sold.

“Contacting the distributor yields information for the next entity that acquired the microchip until an entity is reached that maintains data connecting the microchip to the horse.

“It can be a grueling process.

“Attempts to trace microchips have highlighted some significant challenges,” she says. “There are multiple parties involved in and expectedly responsible for keeping records associated with a microchip.

“Failure to keep or transfer records at any step in the pathway yields a permanent dead-end, rendering the microchip essentially useless.

“The best outcomes in tracing have been achieved when the end information is maintained by breed registries or other equine industry groups with a vested interest in connecting the horse to its unique identification.

“Contact with the manufacturer has reliably been successful in obtaining the distributor information, but this approach is time-consuming and not practical in urgent situations, such as a contagious disease outbreak.”

Pelzel-McCluskey says some microchip manufacturers do not require distributors to maintain records on each microchip sold, which results in a dead-end trace.

“A publicly accessible online lookup tool for equine microchips is needed to streamline the trace-back process. Such a lookup tool could provide quick identification and contact information of the main entity (breed registry, discipline group, registration system) holding information on that particular microchip number while maintaining the security and confidentiality of the data until a specific request is made for information disclosure.

“Above all it must be recognized by the equine industry that simply implanting microchips in horses is not enough.

“There must be maintenance of data and structure of traceability built-in behind the microchips for their intended purposes to be fulfilled.”

Equine Disease Quarterly is funded by underwriters at Lloyd’s, London.

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