Dogs may be our best friends and their unwavering loyalty priceless but thefts of them are not being pursued by police because most are worth under £500 and so rated a minor low level crime, say campaigners.
They cite research, published today (Thur), which shows dog theft has turned into a low-risk, high reward crime because the law is framed in such a way animals have to be worth more than £500 before any serious sanctions are imposed on thieves.
Only one in 100 dog theft cases last year resulted in the thief being charged and prosecuted, according to the figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws by Daniel Allen, an animal geographer at Keele University.
“Dog theft has a devastating impact on people and families and is a known gateway to animal cruelty and extortion. Yet very few criminals get caught, let alone charged,” said Mr Allen.
His figures, from 39 of the 44 police forces, show prosecutions have fallen by 70 per cent since 2015 to just 20 last year, despite a 20 per cent rise in the number of dog thefts from 1,545 in 2015 to 1,849 in 2018.
“Some victims point to police inaction, others to the courts. But the reality is that the law informs police priorities and resources, and the sentencing of magistrates,” he said.
There is no specific offence of stealing a pet unlike car or bicycle theft. This means dogs are classed in the same way as low-value inanimate objects under the 1968 Theft Act.
As a result, offenders only face more serious penalties if the dog is worth more than £500. The maximum penalty for the theft of a dog worth under £500 is two years in prison but most offences result in a fine, often no more than £250.
Debbie Matthews, of the charity Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance (Sampa), said: "All we want is for dog theft to be taken seriously by the police, courts and law. At the moment, it is like the theft of a laptop, TV, ring or any other inanimate object.
“But dogs are living, breathing creatures. You can't put a price on your dog. They are irreplaceable.
"Yet the police’s hands are tied by the law because pets are just inanimate objects. You would not expect police to be running around looking for your stolen mobile phone or garden pots. We would like there to be a specific offence as there is for the theft of bicycles or cars."
Sampa is this month expected to trigger a Parliamentary debate through a petition backed by more than 116,000 people calling for reform of the laws.
It wants sentencing guidelines in the Theft Act to be revised to “reclassify the theft of a pet to a specific crime in its own right” or for the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to have such a provision.
This would ensure the courts considered the fear, alarm or distress to sentient animals rather than their monetary value and raise the maximum penalty for theft to five years in jail.
This contrasts with recent cases such as the theft of Pixie, an 11 month old pug, where the criminal was fined just £250. Or the theft of two pugs, Betty and Harry, where the dog thief was ordered to pay £200 compensation and £400 costs. The stolen pets remain missing.
Even organised crime gangs, who have moved in on dog theft because of the profits from selling and breeding pedigree animals or designer cross-breeds like Labradoodles, have escaped jail.
Members of a gang who stole 15 Cavalier King Charles spaniels from a Lincolnshire breeder received suspended jail sentences after pleading guilty. Only one of the dogs was later recovered.