Dognappers could be jailed for seven years in a major crackdown on the ‘heartless trade’ in stolen animals.
Thieves will be charged with a new offence of ‘pet abduction’ that will lead to longer prison sentences.
The tougher law is being introduced to reflect that cherished pets mean more to their families than the laptops or phones they may lose in a burglary, and that the animals themselves suffer when snatched from their homes.
A government taskforce recommended the move following fears that criminal gangs were targeting dogs after demand during lockdown led to a surge in the price of puppies.
Dognappers could be jailed for seven years in a major crackdown on the ‘heartless trade’ in stolen animals, it has been revealed. Pictured: The Robson family, from Nantwich in Cheshire, welcome the tough new law after their Labradors Denzel and Welly were stolen by dog nappers
Victims welcome tough new law on dognapping
A family whose two Labradors were snatched from outside a Marks & Spencer’s welcomed the new offence.
Charlotte and Dale Robson and their daughters were distraught when Denzel and Welly were stolen in March. Autumn, four, and three-year-old April feared they would never see their pets again.
To the family’s relief, the dogs were found unharmed three days later after police received a tip-off. The dognapper was sentenced to six months in prison.
Mrs Robson, 32, of Nantwich, Cheshire, said the sentence was not long enough and she welcomed the crackdown.
She said: ‘It means everything to us. The fact that they’re thinking of the welfare of dogs, too. Welly has had a really rough ride since everything happened. They do feel – Welly is proof of that.
‘I would love for the man who stole our dogs to understand the extent of what he did. It’s not like you’re stealing a laptop or something.’
Home Secretary Priti Patel said last night: ‘Stealing a pet is an awful crime which can cause families great emotional distress while callous criminals line their pockets.
‘The new offence of pet abduction acknowledges that animals are far more than just property and will give police an additional tool to bring these sickening individuals to justice.’
Other moves in the crackdown include making it easier for details of stolen animals to be found by police and vets on microchipping databases, tracking unscrupulous sellers by forcing them to show ID when they place adverts and banning cash sales.
Owners could even register their dogs with police and store their DNA on a database in projects considered by some forces.
Until now, pets have been treated like any other personal property taken by thieves, with few dognappers prosecuted and most avoiding jail.
But a tougher stance was demanded after the first Covid-19 lockdown led to unprecedented numbers of families wanting to buy pets.
This forced prices up and led to organised gangs starting to steal dogs.
According to a report from the pet theft taskforce, published today, 1,504 offences of dog theft were reported to police forces across England and Wales in 2020 – at a time when lockdown led to a sharp fall in burglaries and muggings.
In March, DogLost, a charity that helps owners whose animals are taken, said it had recorded a 170 per cent increase in the crime, rising from 172 pets reported stolen in 2019 to 465 in 2020.
The taskforce report also cites evidence from Pets4Home that the average price paid for a pup rose from £810 in 2019 to £1,875 last year.
Pictured: Charlotte and Dale Robson reunited with their labradors, Denzel and Welly
Only one in five stolen dogs are reunited with their owners, police figures suggest, while less than 1 per cent of cases result in a prosecution.
The taskforce considered ways to ‘better reflect the view that stolen pets are not mere property but sentient beings’, but decided against making pet theft an aggravating factor.
Instead, a new ‘pet abduction’ offence could ‘switch the focus from the loss to the owner to the welfare of the animal’, the report said.
This would tie in with another planned law – being driven by a friend of the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie – which recognises that animals have feelings and which could lead to a ban on lobsters being boiled alive.
Today’s report does not recommend a maximum sentence for pet abduction, but sources say a figure of seven years’ imprisonment could be introduced.
Ministers also commit today to making it easier for lost or stolen dogs to be tracked.
Pictured: Malachy Doherty, from Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, was jailed for 27 weeks over the theft of the Robson’s Labradors
Although all dogs have to be microchipped, there are 16 different databases, and the taskforce said it was ‘extremely difficult for owners and enforcement agencies’ to navigate between them.
It recommends a ‘single point of access’ to all of the information stores ‘that is accessible to vets, police and local authorities’.
Owners and breeders could also be forced to give more details on microchips when dogs are sold.
And pet sales websites will be encouraged to require proof of ID when sellers place adverts, as well as encouraging cashless sales, in order to trace those trading in stolen pets.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said: ‘These proposals will make sure police can better identify and track down criminals who peddle in this heartless trade, while ensuring they are appropriately punished for their actions.’
RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said: ‘Pet theft can leave families in utter turmoil and have serious welfare implications for animals ripped away from everything they know.
‘The new pet abduction offence will acknowledge the seriousness of this crime.’
Mark Beazley, chief executive of the Kennel Club, added: ‘For far too long, sentencing provisions for pet theft have not reflected the devastating emotional impact that losing a beloved pet can have.’
The Dogs Trust said: ‘Current sentencing does very little to deter thieves and is determined by the monetary value of the dog, meaning perpetrators are often given fines which do not reflect the emotional impact and trauma that dog theft has on families.’