by George Looby, DVM
Veterinarians have been microchipping small animals for many years and the results of the program have been most rewarding. Countless dogs and cats have been returned to their rightful owners as a result of this program. Now the time has come for horse owners to have their steeds microchipped in the same way that their canine and feline counterparts have had done for many years.
Photographs have been used for years for purposes of identification. The facial features of humans are unique and it has proven satisfactory for passports, fugitive identification, employee identification among others. The facial features of the horse do not lend themselves to definitive identification — too many horses have almost identical features that would make it very difficult to rely on them as a proof positive means of identification. Whole body photographs too are unreliable as again too many horses of the same breed may look almost identical. In the days of yore, branding was a common means of identification but it was generally not able to key the process down to the individual horse, only groups of horse belonging to the same ranch. Brands were sometimes altered if an already branded horse came into the hands of an unscrupulous horse thief. Ear tags, both metal and plastic, have been also used for many years in other breeds of livestock but the ear of the horse does not lend itself to such IDs.
This year the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) and the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) hosted their second Equine Forum in Denver, CO. The focus of the forum was to discuss equine ID, Technology and Electronic Health Records. At the conclusion of the meeting a statement was issued which stated the time for advancing equine identification is now as the industry is heading in that direction. Industry is in a position to take charge and lead as it is the overwhelming consensus the government should not lead the charge. The information technology and the software to manage the data of microchips is available and ready for use by the industry.
Tattooing the upper lip of Thoroughbreds is standard practice and has proven to be quite satisfactory for that breed but not without some flaws. The search for a less invasive method was ongoing. Microchips worked well in other species so why not the horse. The quick answer is that they are and in some situations they will be required. Beginning in competition year 2018 all horses competing in USEF licensed and/or USHJA sanctioned competitions with Hunter, Hunter Breeding, Jumper and Hunter/Jumping Seat Equitation classes not restricted by breed will be required to be microchipped to receive points. By 2019 all horses competing in USEF licensed and/or USHJA sanctioned competitions with Hunter, Hunter Breeding, Jumper and Hunter/Jumping Seat Equitation classes not restricted by breed will be required to be microchipped.
This year the Jockey Club began requiring that microchipping be part of all foal registrations. Last year 23,000 foals were registered voluntarily so it is evident that the program has already found wide acceptance. The U.S. is not always the leader when it comes to adopting new technology. Several countries already require microchips for Thoroughbred registration.
One of the apparent difficulties associated with microchipping is that there is a need for every horse that is microchipped be accessed through a central clearinghouse, eliminating the need for an individual seeking information to do a search through a number of different possible access points. Thus if a horse of a particular breed is microchipped and registered with that number, that information should also be available through a central registry. In this era of computer sophistication this should not be an insurmountable task.
A further advantage of this technology would be the ability to monitor horse movements in the event of a major disease outbreak. In almost all such instances the animals are quarantined until any threat to the general population is under control. In the rare instance of a break in the protocol microchipped horses could be easily tracked.
A new technology is the development of a biothermal microchip that allows an almost instant reading of a horse’s temperature. This development should be a great aid in situations where relatively large numbers are involved to determine those at greatest risk and in need of further evaluation. This should be of particular value at racetracks, boarding stables, breeding farms and other facilities where large numbers congregate from a number of different sources.
For reasons that remain somewhat unclear the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has yet to take a firm stand in support of microchipping. It is the position of the Association that newer, yet to be developed technology, may prove to be superior to microchipping. They have further stated that if there is overwhelming support of microchipping by the equine industry they will support it.
One of the concerns of some owners and regulatory people is the possibility of microchips migrating from their point of insertion to a point where they might not be easily detected by a scanner. Work has been done to determine whether this is true and to date there has been no evidence of migration, once inserted they stay put.