The moment Brandi Crawley’s kids saw Zoey in a pet store, it was love at first sight.
"She was perfect,” Crawley said. “She sat in our lap and you would throw a ball and she would run after the ball."
The pet store told the family the shih tzu/French bulldog mix dog came with a microchip, a tiny electronic device containing the owner’s contact information and injected under a pet’s skin.
Crawley recalls how the pet store “told us if she ever got lost or ran away, all we would have to do is wait for whoever found her. They would take her to a shelter, they would scan her and then they would notify us that they found her."
But when Zoey ran off, the phone call never came.
When the dog arrived at the New York Avenue shelter, shelter staff “did scan for the microchip,” Washington Humane Society Chief Operating Officer Stephanie Shain said. “In this case, the only information on that microchip at that time was the pet store where the dog was purchased."
Staff tried hard to locate Zoey’s owner, Shain said.
"We contacted the microchip company and were given information several days later with a phone number,” Shain said. “We tried that number and were told it was a wrong number."
The News4 I-Team found that's not unusual.
Dr. Linda Lord at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine did a study of 53 shelters across the country and found 35 percent of microchipped animals that came into the shelters had an incorrect or disconnected phone number. Another 24 percent were registered to a former owner.
Many owners “aren’t told they need to update information” when they bring their pet home, Lord said. “Updating isn’t difficult to do,” Lord said. But “owners just don’t know” that they need to do it.
"A chip that is unregistered might as well have been put in the garbage,” said Dr. Michael Moyer, the president of the American Animal Hospital Association. “It does the pet no good at all to have an unregistered chip in it."
His group is made up of veterinarians and animal hospitals throughout the country that have created a simple website that allows pet owners to type in their microchip number. The site will then tell you which company owns the microchip and where you can go to update the information.
Some require a phone call, others allow you to update your information online, Moyer said.
The American Animal Hospital Association has made a list of changes it would like to see microchip companies make because, Moyer said, even if your pet’s information is up to date, there can still be problems.
For example, there's not just one type of scanner to read all microchips. Chip makers use different radio frequencies to transmit the owner’s information, which require different scanners to read the chip, Moyer said.
There are a few “universal scanners,” but Lord discovered none is “100 percent effective” in another study she conducted at Ohio State University.
Even when the scanners work, finding the chip can be hard.
As a professor of shelter medicine for the School of Veterinarian Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Moyer teaches his students how to place microchips. They’re supposed to be injected between the shoulder blades.
"I think sometimes people pick up skin from further down,” Moyer explained, grasping skin near a dog’s right front leg. Demonstrating how loose the skin is, he pulled it toward the shoulder blades. “They inject on the top of the dog or the cat, but in fact they've dragged skin from further down, so one should scan over a more generous-sized area because the chip could be anywhere."
The Washington Humane Society says it found Zoey’s microchip. If it had been updated, it could have saved the dog’s life.
Zoey was eventually put to sleep, leaving Crawley the impossible job of telling her kids their family pet can no longer come home.
"I can't tell them what happened to her,” she said. “I wish I didn't know what happened to her."