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Kitty vs. International RFID Standardisation

So, I’ve just bought myself an RFID implant reader.

However, don’t jump to conclusions — it’s not that I’m hoping that possession will put me on the right side of the New World Order 21st-century pervasive-RFID-tracking security infrastructure or anything — it’s for my cat. Here’s why…

Many years ago, back in Ireland, we had an RFID chip implanted in our cat, as you do. Then 3 years ago, we entered the US, bringing the cat with us, and started looking into what we’d have to do to bring him back again.

Ireland and the UK are rabies-free, and have massive paranoia about pets that may harbour it; as a result, pets imported into those countries generally have to stay in a quarantine facility for 6 months. Obviously 6 months sans kitty is something that we want to avoid, and thankfully a recent innovation, the Pet Travel Scheme allows this. It allows pets to be imported into the UK from the USA, once they pass a few bureaucratic conditions, and from there they can travel easily to Ireland legally. (BTW Matt, this still applies; we checked!)

One key condition is that the pet be first microchipped with an RFID chip, then tested for rabies, with those results annotated with the chip ID number. Once the animal arrives in the UK on the way back, the customs officials there verify his RFID implant chip’s ID number against the number on the test result documentation, and (assuming they match and all is in order) he skips the 6 month sentence.

So far, it seems pretty simple; the cat’s already chipped, we just have to go to the vet, get him titred, and all should proceed simply enough from there. Right? Wrong.

We spent a while going to various vets and animal shelters; unfortunately, almost everyone who works in a vet’s office in California seem to be incompetent grandmothers who just work there because they like giving doggies a bath, couldn’t care less about funny foreign European microchips, and will pretty much say anything to shut you up. Tiring stuff, and unproductive; eventually, after many fruitless attempts to read the chip, I gave up on that angle and just researched online.

Despite what all the grannies claimed, as this page describes, the US doesn’t actually use the ISO 11784/11785 standard for pet RFID chips. Instead it uses two alternative standards, one called FECAVA, and another FECAVA-based standard called AVID-Encrypted. They are, of course, entirely incompatible with ISO 11784/11785, although, to spread confusion, the FECAVA standard appears to be colloquially referred to in parts of the US vet industry, as “European” or even “ISO standard”. I think it was originally developed in Europe, and may have been partially ISO-11784-compliant to a degree, but the readers have proven entirely incompatible with the chip we had, which is referred to as “ISO” in the UK and Ireland at least. They don’t even use the same frequencies; FECAVA/AVID are on 125 KHz, while ISO FDX-B is on 134.2 KHz.

(BTW, a useful point for others: you can also tell the difference at the data level; FECAVA/AVID use 10-digit ID numbers, while ISO numbers are 15-digit. Also, “FDX-B” seems to accurately describe the current Euro-compatible ISO-standard chip system.)

Now, a few years back, it appears that one company attempted to introduce ISO-FDX-B-format readers and chips to the FECAVA-dominated marketplace, in the form of the Banfield ‘Crystal Tag’ chip and reader system.

That attempt foundered last year, thanks to what looks a lot like some MS-style dirty tricks — patent infringement lawsuits and some ‘your-doggy-is-in-danger’ FUD:

what we have here is a different, foreign chip that’s being brought in and it’s caused a lot of confusion with pet owners, with shelters, and veterinarians.

(Note ‘foreign’ — a little petty nationalism goes a long way.) The results can be seen in this press story on the product’s withdrawal:

Although ISO FDX-B microchips are being used in some European countries and parts of Australia, acceptance of ISO FDX-B microchips is not universal and the standard on which they are based continues to generate controversy, in part due to concerns about ID code duplication.

FUD-bomb successful!

Anyway, this left us in a bad situation; our cat’s chip was unreadable in the US, and possibly even illegal given the patent litigation ;) . We had two choices: either we got the cat re-chipped with a US chip, paying for that, or we could find our own ISO-compatible reader.

We sprung for the latter; although the re-chipping and re-registration would probably cost less than the $220 the reader would cost, we’d need to buy a US reader in addition, since the readers at London Heathrow airport are ISO readers, not FECAVA/AVID-compatible. On top of that, this way gives me a little more peace of mind about compatibility issues when we eventually get the cat to Heathrow; we now know that the cat’s chip will definitely be readable there, instead of taking a risk on the obviously-quite-confusing nest of snakes that is international RFID standardisation.

Anyway, having decided to buy a reader, that wasn’t the last hurdle. Apparently due to the patent infringement lawsuit noted above, no ISO/FDX-B-compatible readers were on sale in the US! A little research found an online vendor overseas, and with a few phone calls, we bought a reader of our very own.

This arrived this morning; with a little struggling from the implantee, we tried it out, and verified that his ID number was readable. Success!