Pet abduction is to be made a criminal offence in England after a rise in reported thefts during Covid lockdowns.
Theft of a pet is currently treated as a loss of an owner's property, but ministers want a new law to acknowledge the emotional distress it can cause.
The proposal is one of a string of recommendations in a report by the pet theft taskforce - set up to tackle an increase in incidents during lockdown.
It found that around 2,000 dogs were reported stolen last year.
The taskforce - comprising government officials, police, prosecutors, and local authorities - received evidence from animal welfare groups, campaigners, academics and other experts.
Its report found that seven in 10 pet thefts recorded by police involved dogs.
Although offences under the Theft Act 1968 carry a maximum term of seven years, ministers say there is little evidence of that being used, because the severity of the sentence is partly determined by the monetary value of the item taken.
It is not known what the maximum sentence for a new offence of pet abduction might be.
Quoting data from animal charity Dogs Trust, the report said the price for five of the UK's most desirable dog breeds grew "significantly" during the first nationwide lockdown, with some rising as high as 89%.
The taskforce suggested this potentially made dog theft more appealing to criminals seeking to profit from the spike in demand for pets.
Meanwhile, Google searches for "buy a puppy" rose by over 160% in the months between March and August 2020 after England's first nationwide lockdown began.
The taskforce's recommendations also included:
- requiring additional information when registering a microchip, especially when transferring ownership
- more straightforward access to the different microchip databases available to make it easier to track lost or stolen dogs
- improving collection and recording of data on pet thefts
- further initiatives by police and others to raise awareness about prevention tips
The taskforce also looked at measures such as requiring proof of identification for all online pet adverts, and allowing owners to register their dogs with police, including photos and DNA as well as contact and microchip information.
Officials hope the proposals will make it more difficult for thieves to abduct and sell on pets, make it easier for police to apprehend offenders, and that sentences and penalties handed to offenders will reflect the impact on the animal.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: "Stealing a pet is an awful crime which can cause families great emotional distress whilst 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."
Environment Secretary George Eustice said reports of a rise in pet thefts had been worrying and that owners should not have to "live in fear".
Tips to protect your dog
- Avoid leaving it unattended in public
- Vary routines when walking it
- Take basic security steps at home - such as keeping it in sight in the garden and ensuring gates are locked
- Avoid sharing too much information about it on social media
You can read more here.
RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said the new pet abduction offence would recognise the "seriousness" of the crime, adding: "We hope this will encourage courts to hand out much tougher sentences to pet thieves."
He said simplifying the microchipping database would help tackle pet theft, animal welfare issues and "irresponsible pet ownership".
Diane James, from the Blue Cross animal welfare charity, said the organisation hoped the new sentencing laws were brought in "swiftly", adding: "[We] would still advise owners to continue to be vigilant and follow advice to prevent becoming a victim of this abhorrent crime."