Microchipping: High-Tech Horses

We interact with microchips every day--in our computers, telephones, and even our kitchen appliances. But the thought of putting a microchip into a horse can make us uncomfortable. Fear not--veterinarians say microchipping horses is a quick and simple procedure that provides safe, permanent identification.

Kevin Owen, DVM, owner of Electronic ID Inc. (the U.S. ditributor for Destron-Fearing/Digital Angel chips), has been involved in microchipping horses since 1986. He estimates Destron-Fearing has sold more than 800,000 chips for equine use worldwide. The company offers chips with a patented BioBond cap that allows connective tissue fibers to infiltrate to anchor the chip in place.

microchipping horses

The microchip is smaller than a dime.

"A microchip is a transponder encapsulated in a biocompatible glass," Owen explains. The chips themselves are passive--they don't actually do anything.

"The chip has a predescribed number issued by the ISO, which guarantees uniqueness, etched into it," Owen says. "The power source is the scanner. The scanner sends out a radio frequency wave and retrieves the sketched indention on the chip." If a record exists, this number can be correlated to the owner's information.

When a horse owner decides to have a horse microchipped, he or she can order a kit. Owen says the owner receives a sterile package containing a syringe with the chip already inserted into the cannula of the needle, bar code stickers corresponding to the chip number that can be placed on records, and a registration form to enter the horse's chip into a database. A veterinarian should implant the chip.

Woodrow Friend, DVM, an ambulatory veterinarian with Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., says that although the syringe might be similar to one that's used for vaccines, implanting a chip requires a few more steps than inoculating a horse. His concern when implanting chips is the risk of infection.

"You are actually sticking a foreign body in that's going to remain in the horse's body for the rest of its life," Friend states.

He begins the implantation process by preparing the implant site--the middle third of the nuchal ligament (a ligament that runs along the top of the neck from the poll to withers) on the horse's left side, which is the only FDA-approved site for microchip implantation. Owen says this location was carefully selected when microchips first entered the equine identification scene in the 1980s.

"We were looking for an implant site that would be pediatric-friendly, that we could inject at day one and not cause any trauma to nervous or vascular system," Owen says. "We wanted a place that was easily accessible, and most horses will let you walk up to their neck."

First, Friend clips the hair from the site. Next, he performs a 10-minute scrub to thoroughly clean the area to avoid the introduction of any dirt or hair, which could cause an infection. He also uses a local anesthetic to block the nerve conduction in that area.

"I block because it's a large-bore needle," Friend says. "It's convenient because that's a large needle to go into the neck and I don't want the horse jumping around--I want to make sure the chip goes where I want it to go, and not have the horse moving around when I'm doing it."

Once the area's prepped, all that's left for the veterinarian to do is insert the needle and push the plunger.

One might think the microchipping process is complete once the veterinarian packs up and leaves, but Owen says the most important part--registering the chip--is up to the horse owner. Having a chip implanted doesn't do any good if there's no record of it and no way to trace the horse back to his owner. (Such problems of unregistered microchips were encountered post-Hurricane Katrina.)

Owen strongly recommends a horse owner register the chip information in three places: with the breed registry, the veterinarian, and the county clerk's office. Additionally, some chip companies offer tracking databases. If your horse goes missing, you can notify the company to put out an alert that includes the chip number, owner's contact information, and a photograph of the horse.

Properly placed, the microchip will remain in the same location for the duration of the horse's life. Owen says there are no known side effects to microchipping horses, aside from an occasional local reaction if debris was introduced during the implantation process. Owen first chipped horses (foals at the time) in 1986. Those horses are 24 now, and Owen says the chips are still working.

Take-Home Message
When implanted correctly, a microchip is a permanent form of identification for your horse. While it’s not a do-it-yourself procedure, your veterinarian can implant a chip quickly and easily, with a minimal risk of complications. Microchipping is a simple way to provide a link to home in case your horse is ever lost or stolen.

About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

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