A new law will recognise animals as ‘more than mere property’ and crack down on the booming trade in stolen pets.
The government is set to create a new offence for criminals who go after pets, which will also recognise animals as ‘sentient beings’.
Seven out of ten animal thefts involve dogs and ministers are concerned a black market trade fuelled by lockdown puppy purchases has blossomed.
According to Dogs Trust, Google searches for ‘buy a puppy’ increased by over 160% in the months between March and August 2020.
The price of some sought-after breeds almost doubled in the last 18 months as more people than ever became dog owners, taking the country’s canine population to over 10 million.
Around 2,000 dog thefts were reported to police in 2020 alone, with pricey and in-demand pets suddenly becoming more appealing to criminals.
The crime of theft already carries a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment but they are very rarely handed out when an animal is stolen as the sentence is partly determined by the monetary value of the item taken.
Now the government is set to create a new, specific offence of animal theft to recognise the unique emotional distress caused when a pet is stolen.
A new report presented to ministers has recommended formally recognising animal companions as sentient beings and introducing new security systems to make profiting from stolen animals harder.
Proposals include tightening up microchip rules and opening up access to databases, bringing in a national system for recording pet thefts and requiring proof of ID for people selling pets online.
Another idea under consideration is allowing owners to register their dogs with police, including photos, DNA and ultraviolet markings as well as contact and microchip details.
The policy ideas were drafted by a taskforce set up to specifically look at rising rates of animal theft.
The report concludes: ‘There is growing public feeling that criminal law and the sentencing for offences involving the theft of pets do not sufficiently recognise an animal as something more than mere property.
‘We are aware of the calls from some campaigners to recognise that animals are different from inanimate objects through the creation of a new criminal offence, or through a change to sentencing practice.’
It found the risk of theft is still low but the emotional impact of having a pet stolen is ‘undeniable’.
Ministers have been urged to introduce the changes ‘at pace’ to combat the growing criminal industry.
It has previously been reported the new offence will carry a maximum jail term of five years but this is yet to be confirmed.
It is thought the measures could be added to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill which is already working its way through parliament.
Environment secretary George Eustice said reports of a rise in pet thefts have been ‘worrying’ and owners should not have to ‘live in fear’, adding that the recommendations would ‘reassure’ them.
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