A new offence of “pet abduction” is being drawn up to tackle a rise in dognapping since the start of the first lockdown last year. This is the primary recommendation from the government’s pet theft task force, which was launched following soaring cases of stolen pets.
As demand for pets grew with people forced to spend more time at home during the pandemic, the cost of dogs and cats rose sharply, and soon organised crime groups were coordinating pet thefts to exploit the inflated prices.
Ministers were thought to be considering incorporating a new offence of pet theft into the existing theft act, but rejected the idea after concluding that animals shouldn’t be valued in the same way as property, and that the existing offence was inadequate for prosecuting pet thieves.
Government sources say the new offence would acknowledge the “sentience of animals” and, factoring in the loss to the owner along with the welfare of the animal, would carry tougher sentences.
The source added: “Instead of making a tokenistic change to the law, we have been listening to charities, breeders and the police to get a better understanding of what we need to do to tackle this awful crime.
“Part of the package will be a new offence to better reflect the fact that for most people, pets are not just property, and having one stolen is traumatic for both the owner and the pet. A purpose-made new offence will do this and mean those who steal pets will face tougher sentences than they do at the moment.”
Campaigners have repeatedly complained that those who are caught stealing dogs are often given only a small fine or suspended sentence.
The measure is likely to be added to the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which is currently going through Parliament. Home secretary Priti Patel recently called pet theft “absolutely shocking”.
The pet theft task force – made up of government officials, police and campaign groups – is finalising its report, which is expected to be published in the next few weeks.
The proposed offence is also aimed at increasing the number of successful prosecutions. According to campaign group Pet Theft Reform, only 1% of dog thefts in recent years have resulted in a prosecution.
Research from pet insurers found that reported dog thefts increased by a fifth in 2020, with an estimated 2,438 dogs reported stolen to police across the UK. In March this year, the charity DogLost, which helps victims of dog theft, reported a 170% increase in cases, with 172 dogs reported stolen in 2019 and 465 in 2020.
In particular, prices for the most popular breeds of dog, such as French bulldogs and spaniels, have increased significantly compared to their pre-pandemic levels.
According to Dogs Trust, prices for the UK’s five most sought-after breeds rose sharply during the first lockdown, in some cases by as much as 89%, with some animals now worth more than £6,000.
Police have advised owners to avoid leaving their dog unattended, to vary their walking routines and to check locks on garden gates and doors.