Despite the UK Government pledging to introduce new legislation which will see pet theft officially recognised in the courts, Dr Daniel Allen says there should be no delay in getting plans rubber stamped.
Thanks to the efforts of the Stolen And Missing Pets Alliance (SAMPA), dedicated team of volunteers behind the Pet Theft Reform campaign, founded by Dr Allen in 2018 – along with famous dog fans such as Ricky Gervais, David Walliams and Clare Balding lending their support – pet abduction is set to be made a criminal offence.
But Dr Allen says more needs to be done to ensure people are hearing about the heart-breaking stories of owners having their beloved pets stolen and the emotional impact that this has on families.
These include Sir Bruce Forsyth’s daughter Debbie Matthews, who’s also been fighting to make pet theft a criminal offence since 2014 – after her own dogs were snatched from her car back in 2006.
Speaking before relaunching his Pet Theft Reform campaign, Dr Allen said: “When the government pledged five-year prison sentences for animal cruelty, it took over five years for that legislation to actually be put in place.
“Think how many dogs could be stolen if we have to wait five years for this law to come into effect. It would simply be too long to wait.”
Dr Allen hopes that relaunching the Pet Theft Reform campaign will also help to generate more interest around the problem, encouraging more people to get involved to raise awareness of stolen pets.
The law currently treats the theft of a pet the same as any loss of property, so a stolen dog would be viewed the same as a stolen laptop, Dr Allen points out.
“An abducted family member is an inanimate object,” he explained.
“This has had obvious implications on policing and sentencing, basically making pet theft a low-risk, high-reward crime.”
However, this is soon set to change under new legislation, after the pandemic saw a huge rise in pets being snatched.
Dog abductions in particular have been sharply on the rise since 2020, with demand for dogs surging during Covid lockdowns.
According to Crimestoppers, up to seven pets were reported stolen every single day in 2020.
It’s thought that lockdown demand is responsible for driving up prices for dogs to record levels, with Dogs Trust finding price hikes of up to 89% for the most desirable breeds, which has made them a more appealing target for criminals.
Following the rise in thefts and increasing concerns from campaigners, the Government set up a Pet Theft Taskforce in May 2021, and has pledged to introduce a new criminal offence for pet abduction which will “recognise the emotional distress to the animal in addition to its owner”.
The Government Taskforce report also recommends reforming the way data on pet theft is collected, and improving the recording of pet ownership via microchipping; changes which the Government say will “make it easier for the police to track pet abduction incidents, making it easier to clamp down on offenders”.
When it relaunches later this month, Dr Allen’s Pet Theft Reform campaign will be pushing for the report’s recommendations to be brought into effect as soon as possible. It’s hoped that the renewed efforts will help shine a light on the families still searching for their stolen pets.
What is the current law on stealing cats and dogs?
Pet theft is not a specific crime and is currently considered as a loss of property to owners under the Theft Act 1968.
In effect cats and dogs are treated the same as an inanimate object under the law – so stealing a dog is the same as stealing a TV or a car.
The new offence would recognise animal companions as sentient beings.
What is the current sentence for stealing a pet animal?
Although offences under the Theft Act carry a maximum term of seven years, ministers have acknowledged there is scant evidence of that being used because the severity of the sentence is partly determined by the monetary value of the item taken.
How many animals are being stolen?
Seven in 10 animal thefts recorded by the police involve dogs, with evidence suggesting around 2,000 dog theft crimes were reported to police in 2020.
There is an estimated UK dog population of 10.1 million in the UK.
Why are people stealing dogs?
The price for five of the UK’s most sought-after dog breeds grew “significantly” during the first lockdown with the price of some rising by almost 90%.
Google searches for “buy a puppy” increased by over 160% in the months between March and August 2020 following the start of lockdown last year.
This potentially made dog theft more “appealing” to criminals, including organised crime groups, looking to profit from the spike in public interest in owning a pet, the report suggested.
How could the law change?
A new offence could lead to tougher sentences, with a maximum jail term of around five years.
It is thought the measure could be added to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill which is going through Parliament.
Other recommendations include:
- Requiring more details when registering a microchip, particular for transferring a dog to a new owner;
- Easier access to the multiple microchip databases in operation to make it easier to track lost or stolen dogs;
- Better and more consistent recording of pet thefts as data on the crimes is limited;
- Making it compulsory for the veterinary profession to check microchip registration at pets first veterinary treatment
- More awareness campaigns providing advice on how to protect pets.