The RSPCA, the animal welfare charity, said legislation that imposes a basic duty of care on every animal owner in Britain is urgently needed after a dramatic annual increase in cases of neglect.
Last year RSPCA inspectors found 70,000 animals whose basic needs for food, water and shelter were not being met - an increase of 78 per cent on the previous 12 months. In nearly 20,000 cases, animals did not have access to water - an increase of 96 per cent on 2003. The organisation also recorded an increase of nearly 50 per cent in the number of animals it visited to more than one million, the first time its caseload has reached seven figures.
"These statistics are truly shocking and we must ask the Government to take notice and act now," the RSPCA's director general, Jackie Ballard, said.
"It is staggering that nearly 20,000 animals have not been getting access to water. This information shows more than ever that there are some people out there who really should not own an animal if they cannot appreciate the most basic of requirements."
The organisation is calling for a new Animal Welfare Act to enshrine in law a requirement that owners of the estimated 25 million pets in Britain - including 6.5 million dogs and 9.2 million cats - provide their animals with food, drink and shelter. Anyone failing to meet the requirements would be liable to criminal prosecution.
Under the current legislation, which dates from 1911, the RSPCA's 323 inspectors have no powers to enforce basic care and can only take action when they judge that actual cruelty has been inflicted - often after weeks or months of witnessing the animals deteriorate.
The organisation, which brought 1,507 prosecutions last year resulting in convictions for 1,732 separate offences, said it had dealt with a series of extreme cases over the past year.
A man who cut the ears off his Staffordshire bull terrier puppy with a knife was sentenced to 42 days in custody and banned from keeping animals for 10 years. He claimed to have done it because one of the dog's ears was hanging off after a fight with another animal the week before.
One of the most extreme cases involved a Cambridgeshire couple who were found with the remains of more than 80 exotic animals, including an iguana, two polecats and 63 turtles and tortoises decomposing in tanks or stuffed in a freezer.
The husband and wife also had 48 live animals including an albino python and a Harris hawk, 40 of which were suffering the effects of cruelty or neglect. These included two Australian snake-necked turtles found in a tank with the decomposing remains of another turtle.
Officials at the RSPCA said the cases represented the most serious example of a more general culture of neglect that could only be reversed with the threat of legal sanction.
But the organisation stressed that the 78 per cent increase in recorded cases of general neglect did not mean that people had become almost twice as cruel to animals within 12 months. An RSPCA spokeswoman said: "This is only the second year that these figures have been collated so what is emerging is the true extent of the problem."
The Government announced in the Queen's Speech that it would bring forward a new Animal Welfare Bill. Sources at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the proposed legislation was likely to meet the RSPCA's call for a legal duty of care to be imposed on all animal owners.
ROXY, FOXHOUND, CORNWALL
When inspectors found Roxy, a young foxhound, at a kennel used by the South Cornwall Hunt, it was near death. The dog was so thin it could barely stand and weighed just 12kg (26.5 lbs) - half the healthy weight. Stephen Parkin, 44, the master of the hunt and owner of the kennel, was banned from keeping dogs for five years.
CHALKIE, CAT, KENT
In front of his friends, a 16-year-old boy brutalised Chalkie, a cat owned by his father's girlfriend. After hacking off its tail, he threw it from an upstairs window three times, held it against a hot electric fire and put it in a tumble drier. He partially shaved it, kicked it down stairs and put it in a freezer. The boy received four months' youth custody. Chalkie died.