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Image: Bombermoon /  Shutterstock
Image: Bombermoon / Shutterstock

Pet theft should not be treated like a stolen phone

David Bowles
November 30, 2023

Is your dog more important to you than your mobile phone?

You’ll hopefully say ‘yes’, as thankfully many of us consider our pets to be part of our family. But as the law stands at the moment, the theft of a pet is treated the same as the theft of a mobile phone.

That can’t be right. Surely our pets are more than just property?

But a proposed law which would have ‘upgraded’ the seriousness of pet theft has now dropped off the UK Government’s agenda.

The sudden rise in pet ownership - including ‘designer dogs’ - during the Covid-19 pandemic means that sadly, stealing dogs and even cats has become an increasingly lucrative business for unscrupulous thieves.

Many of us will have seen the heart-rending pleas for information about missing dogs posted by devastated families on their local community websites. But while owners are urged to report the theft of their dog to the police (the RSPCA doesn’t deal directly with pet theft), it is not likely to be treated any more seriously than if their phone had been stolen.

And while microchipping dogs and cats, both now agreed in law, does help, tragically many families are never reunited with their pinched pooch.

In the face of this unfair situation, the RSPCA and pet owners were delighted to welcome proposals from the UK Government in 2021 for a specific ‘pet abduction’ offence - taking a pet without lawful authority - as part of the Kept Animals Bill. At last - we all thought - the seriousness of the crime would be recognised and the police would be given the powers to deal appropriately with pet theft. These proposals followed a Pet Theft Taskforce - which was commissioned after a troubling rise in thefts. Finally - it seemed - the UK Government was taking this issue seriously.

But that sense of relief didn’t last long. The Kept Animals Bill was scrapped in May this year and alongside other dropped Government pledges, including a ban on puppy imports, the popular ‘pet abduction’ proposal disappeared into thin air.

This was a huge blow to animal lovers, having waited for almost two years for the Bill to improve the lives of billions of animals.

And it was not just the reform of pet theft that was stopped in its tracks with the demise of the Kept Animals Bill.

A crackdown on the illegal and cruel puppy smuggling trade had also been on the cards, but now sadly nowhere to be seen on the UK Government’s agenda - and missing from the recent King’s Speech.

This was a huge blow to animal lovers Quote

Dog mums and puppies are still forced to travel long distances and as we hear about over and over again, sold to unsuspecting members of the public who often have to deal with sick puppies and dogs with behavioural issues. The Kept Animals Bill was set to tackle this, by increasing the age of imported puppies to six months, giving greater protection around the import of pregnant dogs and reducing the number of dogs an individual or vehicle could bring into the UK.

At the RSPCA, we are frustrated and disappointed that, despite overwhelming public support, the UK Government has repeatedly delayed implementing reforms and has now broken up the Kept Animals Bill, leading to yet more uncertainty and lost time.

There are still 13 promises in that Bill that haven’t been met. So as the RSPCA approaches its 200th anniversary in 2024, the charity fears that the UK is facing a very real prospect of a dramatic downward spiral in animal welfare.

In the absence of UK Government action, hopes may now rest on a law being introduced by an MP as their own Bill - and the Government then supporting it - but time is tight before the election, which will curtail any Bill whose legislative journey has not concluded.

Recently, MPs have had an opportunity to deliver that rescue mission for animal welfare. A Private Members' Bill ballot has been held and backbench proposals could revive 13 animal welfare policy pledges that have been dropped, abandoned or watered down by the UK Government in recent years. Selected MPs will be presenting their chosen Bills on 6th December - and we hope pet theft and puppy smuggling will be among the issues chosen.

The UK Government had previously said it still plans to proceed separately with many pro-pet elements of the Kept Animals Bill, including the delivery of a new offence of pet abduction and a clampdown on puppy smuggling. But the Government’s rhetoric on being a global leader for animal welfare must be matched by its actions - and time is running out.

With a general election likely next year, we believe it is imperative that ministers honour all their manifesto commitments for animals before that happens. Upgrading the seriousness of ‘pet theft’ and finally addressing puppy smuggling would be a win-win situation for the Government.

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David Bowles is head of RSPCA’s public affairs and campaigns and is a board member of the Association of Cat and Dog Homes and the World Federation for Animals.

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