I was about two-thirds through a phone conversation with a journalist doing a story about microchipping pets when she asked me, “So, you’d say microchips are completely safe?”
A big part of me wanted to say, “YES.” I wanted to tell her that everyone should microchip their pets and I wanted to say it in terms that would make her article concise and crystal clear. Instead I said: “The chances of complications are, in my opinion, miniscule.”
I seriously doubt this is the answer she wanted. Her life would be easier and story stronger if I could have said, “Yep, 100% safe.” My factual response was the opposite of an exciting sound bite, and it practically begged for further investigation. If someone asks you if something is 100% safe and you don’t say “Yes,” then it can sound as if you’re saying it’s not safe, right?
“When isn’t it safe?” she asked.
“What could go wrong?”
“Are there side effects to the procedure?”
And before I knew it, I was listing off the rarest of possible problems. It was the conversational equivalent of that fast-talking voice at the end of every medication commercial you’ve seen in the last 20 years. “Side effects may include… Talk to your doctor if…”
But here’s the thing: No matter how many times I say. “I’ve never seen any of these complications and I’ve microchipped thousands of pets,” or, “Veterinarians use common sense, experience, and training to make the risk practically non-existent,” it’s still not the same as saying “There is NO risk. This is 100% guaranteed to work perfectly every time.”
The problem with being a legitimate medical professional is that you don’t get to speak in such absolute terms. Medicine (and living organisms, like pets and humans) just don’t work that way.
Later the interviewer mentioned that she’d seen things on the Internet saying microchips cause cancer. She asked me if it was true. Again, my desire to say “no” was strong. I’ve seen the terror-inducing headlines and the harm they do to pets that end up lost without a microchip because of them: “Pet owners duped!” “MICROCHIPS CAUSE CANCER!” etc.
Those headlines drive me nuts, because they deter people from doing something that could very well save their pet’s life. However, as much as I want to, I can’t say “No, it’s never happened.” Instead I had to say something to the effect of, “while ‘MICROCHIPS CAUSE CANCER!’ makes for an attention-grabbing headline, the chances of that happening are incredibly tiny. There was a study published by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association in 1996 that included 3.7 million pets and listed tumor formation as a side effect seen twice.”
So, based on the largest study available, the chances of a microchip causing cancer are about 1 in 1.85 million. Still, I can’t say that possibility doesn’t exist at all, and it’s that extremely small window of uncertainty that people propagating sensationalistic click-bait online exploit.
My point in writing all this is not to convince you of the safety of microchips (although… you should totally microchip your pets).
It’s to point out the educational burden veterinarians carry while others gleefully pump out sensational half-truths, lies of omission, and blatant falsehoods to garner internet traffic and sell products.
If a practicing veterinarian knowingly omits facts while giving care, advice or information, then that veterinarian can be held accountable. We have medical boards that review our conduct and they can strip us of our ability to practice medicine. We simply cannot speak in false certainties.
The people shouting online about why you shouldn’t listen to your vet (but should instead keep reading their website and looking at their advertisements) have no such ethical and professional restrictions. They’ll tell you that their diet supplement will cure your dog’s cancer or that their herbal extract will clean your cat’s teeth, and they’ll never be held accountable for lying to you.
This is why dubious Internet sources speak with more exciting, terrifying, and strongly worded statements than your veterinarian ever will. It’s why floods of concerned pet owners push sketchy websites to the top of Google searches and why half-truth videos are shared so widely on social media. In short, it’s why veterinarians often feel they are losing the battle to educate pet owners in the modern media era.
While I wish those preying on pet owners’ fears would be held to the same standards that we are (or any standards, really), I’m also pretty convinced that will never happen. So where does that leave us?
As veterinarians, we must work harder to get pet owners the knowledge they need. We can’t rely on the Internet to filter out the garbage, and we can’t lose our resolve to do all we can to spread correct information. Pets and their families need us, and time will ultimately prove the value of our knowledge, research, and transparency.
As for pet owners, we must all remind ourselves that good information is seldom mind-blowing and rarely comes with absolute certainty. If you’re ever concerned about your pet, please step away from the Internet and call or go see your vet, who deals in scientific truth and experience. Nothing online can ever replace having a doctor put hands on your animal and tell you what your pet needs.