Pet theft is to be classed as a new criminal offence to help crackdown on a “worrying” rise in dognappings reported during the pandemic.
Stolen animals will no longer be treated as a loss of property under an upcoming legislation change in recognition of the emotional distress that comes from the loss of a pet.
According to the government, the new offence of pet abduction will also prioritise the missing animal’s welfare and help police to track incidents and offenders.
Sentencing guidelines have not yet been finalised, but previous reports have suggested the offence could carry a prison sentence of up to five years.
Dognapping and the theft of other pets has increased in the last year – and in June, parliament debated proposals to make it easier to find stolen pets after more than half a million people signed a petition calling for a specific dog theft offence.
Campaigners and MPs have been pushing for tougher penalties, stating that the current law does not reflect the emotional trauma of losing an animal.
The abduction offence is one of several recommendations in a report published today by the government’s Pet Theft Taskforce which launched in May 2021.
The report considered evidence from experts on the rise of this type of crime, which has seen criminals looking to profit from the rise in popularity of dogs as pets during the pandemic.
The price of some breeds increased by 89% over lockdown, coinciding with a spike in interest from people spending more time at home.
The report found that seven in 10 of the animal thefts recorded by the police involve dogs. Around 2,000 dog theft crimes were reported to police in 2020.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the pandemic has seen “the price of pets increase sharply” which has “created a stronger incentive for these criminal gangs”.
“Pets are much loved members of the family in households up and down the country, and reports of a rise in pet theft have been worrying,” he said responding to the report.
“Pet owners shouldn’t have to live in fear, and I am pleased this report acknowledges the unique distress caused by this crime. Its recommendations will reassure pet owners, help the police to tackle pet theft, and deliver justice for victims.”
Speaking to reporters, the environment secretary later said animal welfare is a key priority for his department and that action must been taken as the UK is “now seeing some 2,000 such cases each and every year”.
The Kowalczyk family had their two-year-old French bulldog Tina stolen from their car in May – and she hasn’t been found.
Patrycja Kowalczyk said: “I don’t think people realise that, like how heart-breaking it is to have a family member taken from you, because Tina is a family member.
“She’s not just a dog. She’s not just a pet. She was a part of our family, honestly and we are not whole without her.”
Recalling the day Tina was stolen, she added: “And I remember the shopping that we had done that day lay still on my kitchen floor for about a week.
“The meat was rotting the ice cream was fully melted like our lives completely froze. And the house was dead. Like, I promise you there was… no kind of, or even a hint of joy there.”
The taskforce’s recommendations also include improving data collection and streamlining England’s 16 pet microchip databases to make it easier to trace stolen animals.
The new measures will also give the government more data on pet theft crimes.
The government will now look into implementing the report’s findings and introducing the pet abduction offence.