Gang steals prized chihuahuas worth £4,000 as dog rustlers cash in on booming black market

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When Margaret Greening returned home on Thursday night to find garden tools strewn over her lawn she assumed she had fallen victim to a gang of vandals.

It was only when she found one of her pedigree chihuahuas wandering loose in the dark that she realised she had been targeted by a growing class of criminal - dog rustlers.

The thieves, who took six of Mrs Greening's prized toy dogs from kennels at her home near Chippenham, Wiltshire, are believed to have been stealing to order to fuel a burgeoning black-market trade in pedigree animals.

Each of the stolen chihuahuas, which included two prize-winning males entered for Crufts and a bitch in pup, are worth at least £600 each, representing a haul of about £4,000.

Mrs Greening, who has been breeding the diminutive Mexican dogs for 40 years, and had two puppies stolen in 2001, said: "It was obviously someone who knew I had chihuahuas and has in mind somewhere for them to go. They are valuable pedigree animals and it is likely they have been taken to order, either for new owners or for breeding. I'm devastated, it is like someone stealing your child."

Dog theft experts said the dogs, one of which had been a runner-up in best of breed at Crufts, could end up with an unscrupulous breeder who will produce false pedigree papers to enable the animals to be sold on.

Figures produced by the Association of British Insurers show that there were claims for 26,000 dogs either lost or stolen last year.

Jayne Hayes, the founder of a website set up to trace missing pets, doglost.co.uk, said it was likely the number of "dognappings" was much higher. She said: "Only one in eight dogs are insured so this is probably the tip of the iceberg. In eight out of 10 cases, they are dogs stolen by petty thieves who try sell them for £30 or £40 in the pub for drug money.

"But there is a growing and more organised trade in pedigree animals which are sold to the highest bidder or taken on by dodgy breeders."

The most popular breeds for thieves, such as labradors or springer spaniels, can fetch up to £500 on the black market, with rarer breeds worth up to £3,000 each.

Animal welfare campaigners pointed to the growing popularity of inserting microchips into animals for identification purposes as proof of the increasing monetary value of family pets.

Around three million cats and dogs, out of a total of 15 million, now carry the identity chips, which are inserted under the skin and can be read with a machine.

An RSPCA spokeswoman said: "There is an increasing realisation that pets have an intrinsic value which can be easily exploited by thieves."