Government launches taskforce the investigate lockdown-related increase in pet theft

The goverment has launched a pet theft taskforce to investigate reported increases in the crime since lockdown to be overseen by environment secretary George Eustice.

Dog walker at Castle Howard

Sales platforms have reported a considerable rise in puppy and kitten prices over the course of the past year following more people deciding to buy or adopt a pet, leading to fears that dogs and cats are being stolen to meet the surge in demand.

According to the charity Dogs Trust, the price for five of the UK’s most sought-after breeds grew significantly during the first lockdown with the price of some rising by as much as 89 per cent. Google searches for ‘buy a puppy’ increased by 166 per cent in the months between March and August following the start of lockdown last year. Recent police investigations into dog theft have also resulted in raids and arrests on suspicion of theft and animal cruelty.

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The new taskforce has been set up to gather evidence to understand the factors that may be contributing to any perceived rise in thefts and to recommend any necessary measures to tackle the problem. The taskforce will learn lessons from successes in tackling other types of theft, such as mobile phone or metal theft, and how to clamp down most effectively on this illegal market and those engaged in it.

Stealing a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968, with offenders facing a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. If someone causes an animal to suffer in the cause of stealing it from its owner, then they are also liable to prosecution for offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

The taskforce will be made up of government officials from Defra, Home Office and Ministry of Justice as well as operational partners such as the police. It will also seek input from animal welfare groups and experts in relevant fields.

It will consider causes, prevention, reporting, enforcement and prosecution and make recommendations accordingly.

Environment secretary George Eustice said: “Pets are much loved members of the family, and these reports will be distressing for all pet owners.

“Pet owners shouldn’t live in fear so we’ve set up this atskforce to thoroughly investigate the issue and ensure that we have the measures in place to stop these criminals in their tracks.”

Home secretary Priti Patel added: “Having callous thieves steal a much-loved pet is heart-breaking for families and it is deplorable that criminals seek to profit from this cruel crime.

“We are already taking action to combat such lawlessness by bolstering the police with 20,000 extra officers but this new taskforce will ensure we know how best to combat the driving forces behind this distressing crime and clamp down on the perpetrators.”

The police have advised that dog owners should avoid leaving their pet unattended while out in public, vary their routines when walking their dogs and should take basic security steps at home such as checking locks on doors and garden gates.

The Blue Cross has also published detailed guidance for pet owners on how they can protect their animals from theft.

The taskforce will include representatives from operational partners to provide knowledge, experience and guidance on the practical aspects of reducing pet theft. It will also seek the input from stakeholders and experts in relevant fields, such as campaign groups and animal welfare organisations to gather any evidence they may hold and seek their views on the issue.

The taskforce will aim to report on the findings and publish its recommendations in the autumn of this year.