After a rise in reported thefts during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, with over 2,000 dogs being stolen in 2020, the UK Government has confirmed that ‘dognapping’ or pet abduction is to be made a criminal offence in England. This new law intends to recognise the welfare of animals and that pets are valued as more than just property by their owners.
What is the current position?
The theft of a pet, which currently falls under the Theft Act 1968, treats a stolen pet as the loss of the owner’s property. Under the Theft Act 1968, this carried a maximum sentence of 7 years imprisonment. However, in practice, there is little evidence that such a harsh, 7-year punishment is handed down, as sentence severity is partially based on the monetary value of the stolen item. As the monetary value of pets is seldomly very high, sentences for pet theft have historically been less stringent.
What is the Pet Theft Taskforce?
In May 2021, the Government launched the Pet Theft Taskforce. This Taskforce is made up of Government officials, local authorities, police and prosecutors, to receive and consider evidence from academics, campaigners, animal welfare groups and other experts to come to make a recommendation regarding pet abduction.
The Taskforce made a variety of recommendations, including:
- the creation of a new offence dealing specifically with pet theft, which acknowledges the true severity of the crime.
- improving the collecting of reliable data on pet theft, to collect more evidence regarding the crime in order to come to a suitable solution.
- improving the recording of pet ownership and transfer data, by introducing one single point of access for all pet microchipping databases (of which there are currently 16), to record relevant details, including the transfer of pets to new owners to ensure full traceability.
- tackling the fear of pet theft, by having the police work with partner agencies to raise awareness about police initiatives and preventive measures regarding pet theft.
The Taskforce’s proposed changes are hoped to make it easier for the police to track incidents of pet abduction and apprehend offenders.
What is proposed under the new pet abduction law?
Under the proposed changes, the theft of a pet would be a new, separate criminal offence, under which abducted pets would be recognised as sentient beings. The new offence also intends to prioritise the welfare of the pet and recognises the distress pet abduction causes to both owners and pets alike.
It is not yet known what the maximum sentence for pet abduction will be under this new offence.
This new pet abduction offence is expected to be brought into force in due course, potentially being included in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament.
How can I protect my pet?
Consider putting in place measures to protect your pet from being stolen or becoming a target, including:
- Not leaving your dog (or other pet) unattended in public (eg outside a shop or unattended in a car).
- Training your pet to return to you when called.
- Avoiding sharing too many details about your pet online.
- Keeping recent photos of your pet, and making notes of any distinguishing features.
- Microchipping your pet (note that it is a legal requirement for dogs to be microchipped) and ensuring that your contact details on the database are up to date, especially if you move or change your phone number.
- Neutering your pet to reduce the risk of roaming.
- Taking care when choosing someone to look after your pet while you’re away or at work, making sure to use a reputable company or boarding kennels and checking references for those providing dog- or house-sitting services.
See the RSPCA’s guidance for more information.