The government has officially launched a pet theft taskforce to investigate the rise in dognapping since lockdown first began last March.
It comes after research from Direct Line Pet Insurance in April revealed that reports of dog theft increased by a fifth in 2020, with an estimated 2,438 dogs reported stolen to police across the UK – up from 2,026 the year before and 1,774 in 2016.
Various sales platforms reported spikes in puppy and kitten prices in the past year, with charity DogsTrust suggesting the cost for five of the UK’s most sought-after breeds grew by as much as 89 per cent in some cases.
Figures from the Pets4Homes website, based on around 150,000 adverts, showed the average price being asked for pets from March to September 2020 was £1,883. During the same period last year, the average price was £888. Meanwhile, Google searches for “buy a puppy” increased by 166 per cent in the same period.
Police have put it down to demand for pets growing as people spend more time at home during the pandemic, and organised crime groups stepping up pet thefts to cash in on the soaring costs as a result.
The new Taskforce – made up of government officials, police and campaign groups – will gather evidence to understand the factors that might contribute to any perceived rise in thefts, and to recommend any necessary measures to tackle the problem, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Its three main objectives are to work with police, law enforcement, and experts to understand and tackle pet theft; consider the issue from end to end, including causes, prevention, reporting, enforcement and prosecution; and to make clear and timely recommendations on ways to reduce pet theft.
Environment secretary George Eustice announced the plans on Friday, reassuring pet owners they would no longer need to “live in fear” while recommitting the Conservative Party’s intention to strengthen the UK’s position as a global leader in animal welfare standards.
“Pets are much loved members of the family, and these reports will be distressing for all pet owners,” Mr Eustice said.
“Pet owners shouldn’t live in fear so we’ve set up this Taskforce to thoroughly investigate the issue and ensure that we have the measures in place to stop these criminals in their tracks.”
Stealing a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment and increases if there are signs of animal cruelty. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, a person who causes an animal to suffer in the process of stealing it from its owner is liable to further prosecution.
Recent police investigations into dog theft have resulted in numerous raids and arrests on suspicion of theft, fraud and animal cruelty. At the end of April, Surrey Police rescued 26 stolen dogs after officers raided an illegal kennel in Epsom. Three women, aged 20, 23, and 30, were arrested on suspicion of fraud offences.
As well as tackling pet theft, the Taskforce forms part of government plans to reinforce the UK’s position as a global leader in animal welfare standards. Ministers have set out various measures already, including taking steps to end live animal exports and cracking down on the illegal smuggling of dogs and puppies.
Further proposals to improve animal standards and eradicate cruel practices are to be set out later this month, Defra confirmed, while the Taskforce will aim to publish its findings and recommendations by autumn this year.
Pledging to ensure pet theft criminals “feel the full force of the law,” Lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC said: “We are a nation of animal lovers and many of us have sought the companionship of pets during the pandemic, which makes the reported spike in thefts especially cruel and shocking to many people.”
“This Taskforce will examine every option available to protect families from this appalling crime,” he added.
Pet theft has become a popular crime not just in the UK but around the world during the pandemic, with perhaps the most well-known example being the shooting and robbery of pop singer Lady Gaga’s dog walker in February.
Ryan Fischer was tailed by a gang as he walked Gaga’s three French bulldogs in Los Angeles, before being assaulted, choked and then shot. Two of the singer’s dogs were stolen and sold on for $950 (£680) each, though the woman who made the purchase later turned them in with hopes of collecting the $500,000 (£358,142) reward offered by Gaga. She was later charged.
Mr Fischer survived the attack and returned home from hospital after having part of his lung removed.
Deputy Ch Const Amanda Blakeman, who is part of the Pet Theft Taskforce, said its formation will support police in understanding “this risk and identifying trends involving serious and organised crime”.
“We hope that this is a step forward in providing reassurance that we are committed to understanding any risks fully, and challenging related criminal behaviour,” she said.
Police forces across the country have issued guidance for dog owners to avoid becoming victims. They advised that pets should not be left unattended in public, walkers should vary their routs, and owners should take basic security steps at home such as checking locks on doors and garden gates.