I heard a crazy story recently: My son’s neighbors lost their cat. It was an indoor/outdoor cat and just went missing; one imagines the worst. A few weeks later, the owners get a call from a veterinarian in a town about 30 miles away. The vet’s office representative asked, “Are you missing a cat?” They said, “Yes!” The vet staffer asked, “Can you provide proof of ownership?” They said, yes, they can send their adoption agreement from a shelter, their vet records, photos of the cat, and their “lost cat” fliers.
Long story short: The cat was brought into the vet’s office by someone who said they recently got the cat and wanted to have it vaccinated and microchipped. Before implanting a chip, however, the vet did what vets (and shelters, rescues, etc.) are supposed to do and checked the cat to see if it already had a microchip, and lo and behold, it did. Fortunately, the microchip was registered and the phone number was up-to-date. We can probably thank COVID for the fact that the cat was safely in protective custody inside the clinic when these discoveries were made, with the client waiting outside in the parking lot.
As most of us are doing during COVID, the vet called the client on the phone to say, “Hey, this cat already has a microchip, and can you tell us where you got the cat?” When the person couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, the vet told them, “I’m sorry, the cat already has owners who have been looking for their cat.” The way I heard the story, the client stormed out and the rightful owners of the cat were able to recover their friendly kitty later that day.
What are the veterinarian’s legal responsibilities?
This got me wondering, though: What is the veterinarian’s legal responsibility in this case?
It turns out that this is a bit of a grey area.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recognizes that veterinarians routinely recommend that pets be microchipped as a way of proving their identity and ownership – so they are stakeholders, as it were, when it comes to the question of a vet’s responsibility if they check for a microchip and discover that their client is in the possession of a lost or potentially stolen pet. The AVMA has a microchip policy which contains this text:
“A veterinarian is expected to exercise his or her professional judgment on ownership before establishing a Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR). In those circumstances that raise suspicion that the presenting person may not actually be the lawful owner of the animal, a veterinarian should ask for documentation of ownership, such as governmental registration, bill of sale, adoption documents, or microchip documentation.”
The veterinarian in the story I heard about my son’s neighbors’ cat did just that, which is great. And the cat’s rightful owners were easily able to prove that not only were they the cat’s owners, they had been actively looking for the cat.
But the AVMA also recognizes that a veterinarian has zero authority to refuse to return an animal brought to them by a client – and a vet who did so may well be sued by the person who brought the pet to them. It’s dicey all around.
As I researched this a bit, I came across multiple accounts of pets who were found to contain two microchips, with different registered owners. What then??
Have you heard a story about unclear ownership of a dog that microchips possibly made more complex, rather than solving?