Friday 25 December 2020

Cat micro-chipping to be compulsory in UK but who will enforce it?

The UK government has been discussing the mandatory microchipping of domestic cats for a long time. It makes sense and surveys indicate that the citizens of the UK want compulsory micro-chipping. The current government minister who can introduce a bill for compulsory micro-chipping is Lord Goldsmith who failed to get a seat in the Commons but who was appointed a peer by Boris Johnson. He wanted to keep him in the government. One reason is probably because Boris Johnson's fiancé is Carrie Symonds and as you probably know by now she is very much an environmentalist and an animal welfare advocate. She is a member of a campaign group called Oceana. She speaks a lot about cleaning up the oceans and her presence at the centre of government, in effect, is very welcome for animal advocates. I'm sure that she together with Lord Goldsmith with whom she is friends decided to attempt again to get through Parliament a bill which would make cat microchip in compulsory. It is long overdue but the practicalities are a constant headache.

Having announced that the UK government would be introducing a bill next year, the veterinarians of the UK came out vociferously against it. This is despite the fact that the animal welfare charities and the animal rescue centre such as Cats Protection and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home were very much for such a bill because they would hope that it would reduce the number of unwanted cats in their shelters. When obligatory microchipping came out for dogs in 2016 there was a massive surge in micro-chipping. Nobody appears to have complained about that project but the veterinarians are fearful that if they become obliged to police compulsory micro-chipping cats it will take them away from their core work which is more profitable or should be.

I think their big worry is that the government wants veterinarians to be the front line of this project to both deliver the microchips to cats and then participate in a nationwide registration process and indeed an enforcement process which may be quite time laborious and labour-intensive. They also believe, through the president of their association, that micro-shipping does not necessarily enhance animal welfare. The spokesperson said that there would be more disputes about ownership of cats because of microchipping and that this could lead to the euthanasia of cats at shelters.

What they are alluding to is the situation whereby a cat is brought to a shelter and a microchip has not been updated for instance so the shelter cannot ascertain the owner's name and address or contact details. The cat is then adopted by a thirds party at which point the original owner comes forward having discovered that their cat is at the shelter only to find that they've lost their animal to a new adopter. A dispute commences in which the shelter is the referee. Nobody is happy about that and the outcome is uncertain. In the past when shelters have been in this invidious position they have felt obliged not to disclose to the original owner the new owner's contact details on privacy grounds. This ends up with a deadlock and the genuine owner being unable to reclaim their cat.

In that instance the animal welfare issues are limited except that the cat becomes the centre of a tug-of-war. It is hard, however, to equate poorer animal welfare with micro-chipping. I disagree with the veterinarians. Microchipping is known to help with the reunification of last animals with their owners. This clearly helps improve animal welfare. The bottom line is that the veterinarians are fearful about their income which is constantly under stress.

I suspect that they feel they deserve more than they are paid because they are as qualified as human doctors. Indeed they can call themselves doctors but they cannot get parity with human doctors in terms of salary. This means they constantly try to improve their profit margins as independent veterinary practices or sometimes they sell-out to big veterinary chains in order to improve their income. The fact of the matter is that human doctors are paid by the NHS (tax payers' money) whereas all veterinarians are paid privately which invariably means that money is tighter. That's the root cause of their objection to compulsory micro-chipping in my opinion.

There are some more points to make about micro-chipping. Although it is highly useful it is not entirely safe because you inject quite a large object under the skin of a cat. This can cause injury on the injection and the microchip can move sometimes. And there is always the ongoing issue of microchip data not being updated which nullifies their efficiency. Finally, the registration of microchips is a private affair. It is not a government run operation and therefore these businesses are constantly changing name or going bust or being reformed et cetera. This scrambles, in my opinion, the registration process. 

Or at least it muddies the water and makes things more complicated. These are the downsides, the biggest of which is how to enforce compulsory micro-chipping. Let's think about it. A cat owner does not microchip her cat. The cat is never ill so for years she would be in breach of the law. If she was caught she would be subject to a fine of perhaps £500 but she's never caught because no one knows whether a cat living in a home is microchipped or not. A lot of people don't take their cat to a veterinarian for many years so even if a veterinarian was charged with enforcing the law they wouldn't know about the cat. That's the kind of problem the government is up against in practical terms.

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