Making the Most of Microchips

ID numbers should be in a searchable database

While microchips were helpful in reuniting horses with owners after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it was generally because owners had proof of horses' microchip numbers. Since 1994, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) has required Coggins or equine infectious anemia tests to be linked with permanent identification of horses, including microchips, tattoos, or freeze/hot brands. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) has not always maintained an efficient, searchable database of ID numbers that could be used as a reference in an emergency; due to lost manpower, the database wasn't updated for two years prior to Katrina. LDAF officials say they now are updating and improving accessibility of that data. 

Bonnie Clark, president of the Louisiana Equine Council (LEC), headed the hurricane equine staging facility at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La., last September. She and other volunteers helped reunite more than 360 horses with their owners. The majority of horses had microchips that were scanned upon arrival to the facility; most Katrina horses were claimed using Coggins papers.

In most cases, Clark researched chips to verify ownership by contacting manufacturers with the chip numbers. One company (Avid) was able to link veterinarians' names to microchip numbers. (These veterinarians had sent records to the company when after implanting the chips.)From there, veterinarians helped Clark identify horses by sifting through their practices' Coggins test records and matching numbers. Some horses were alive and well at Lamar-Dixon; in other cases veterinarians went out to hurricane-impacted areas to scan dead horses' microchips.

Three unclaimed horses have microchips; Clark hasn't been able to get the owner information on one horse (she has submitted the microchip number to LDAF), and she hasn't received a return phone call from the owner of the second horse. The third horse has been claimed and is awaiting pickup by its owner.

Louisiana's ID Update
Martha Littlefield, DVM, MS, assistant state veterinarian with LDAF, described the LDAF microchip data as "searchable before (Katrina and Rita), but it was very, very difficult to search. Since then, we've gotten on the ball and it's going to be searchable starting at 2006. We're going to get all (the files) updated and work backward."

By law, the LDAF only needs to have a record of a horse's permanent identification method (brand, tattoo, or microchip) and its accompanying negative Coggins test. The records aren't required to be searchable, which meant with or without a microchip number, the LDAF database wasn't helpful in identifying hurricane horses. However, the LDAF hard copy of the Coggins could be looked up by hand. The LDAF has plans to electronically store image files of horses' Coggins tests that include microchip numbers. Littlefield said the updated database will be searchable by chip number and owner name. 

Clark feels there should be a better registry. "Something has to be instituted, because the current method is not going to work (in disaster situations)," she said. "They are doing what they're supposed to do, but the owners are assuming the database is for recovery, and that's inaccurate. The (current) database can be utilized for disaster, but that's not what it's designed for."

Clark would like to start a privately managed database for Louisiana horse microchip numbers, but she does not want to compete with the chip manufacturers who manage their own databases. She'd like to include out-of-town phone numbers with the entries. "We had the home addresses and numbers of some of these horses' owners, but there's no house left and we didn't know where they relocated," Clark said. "It took me three months before I found the owner of a Thoroughbred mare who had moved to Texas, although I knew her address and phone number in New Orleans. I also want to include the breed registry number to alert purebred registries in the event of theft."

Despite the identification difficulties in Louisiana last fall and the current question of how best to ensure you can track down and prove ownership of your horse, Littlefield and Clark both said in the long run, horses with microchips are much better off. Littlefield said it can be difficult to distinguish between individual horses that are branded, and it's sometimes difficult, if not dangerous, to check tattoos on unfamiliar horses in a chaotic situation. Horses can be "wanded" with a scanner fairly easily. 

"I keep thinking of the one barn manager who had nearly every horse's Coggins in a notebook with the microchip ID number and gave it to rescuers after Katrina," said Littlefield.

Editor's Note: We realize that some owners from Katrina- and Rita-affected areas still might be looking for their horses. Other individuals might have entered affected areas and rescued stranded horses and are holding or fostering them at their facilities. If you are missing a horse or if you are taking care of hurricane horse refugees, please contact Bonnie Clark toll-free at 888/784-8760, fax 225/784-1608, or e-mail

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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