People who steal dogs could face up to five years in jail if convicted of a new criminal offence being planned by the government.
Animal welfare organisations welcomed the move to tackle the “heart-breaking issue of pet theft”.
The dog abduction offence will recognise animals as sentient beings and sentencing will take into account the emotional distress caused to the dog as well as the owner.
The government will add the offence to the Kept Animals Bill, following a recommendation by a taskforce established to tackle a rise in reported dog thefts during the pandemic.
Some 2,000 dog thefts were reported to the police in 2020, up 20 per cent on the previous year. Around seven in 10 recorded animal thefts involve dogs, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said.
George Eustice, Defra secretary, said: “The loss of a much-loved pet causes unique distress. I am pleased that we are legislating to recognise this specific crime.
“The new dog abduction offence will reflect the impact on animals in penalties for criminals, and deliver justice for victims.”
Dogs will be treated as sentient beings under the offence. The pet theft taskforce recommended the measure to switch the focus in sentencing from the owner’s loss to the welfare of the dog.
The UK's chief veterinary officer Dr Christine Middlemiss said the law change was “an important step forward” with a move away from dogs being treated as “merely property”.
She added: “The new offence should build greater awareness of the significant impacts of dog theft on people and animals, and reassure pet owners that these crimes are being taken seriously.”
Defra said there would be provisions in the bill allowing it to be extended to cover other pets in future, in a move that was welcomed by animal welfare leaders.
David Bowles, head of public affairs at the RSPCA, said the charity was “really pleased to see the government has also recognised how much other animals mean to people as well”.
He said pet theft is “devastating” for owners, adding that he hopes the offence will “act as a real deterrent to those who carry out this crime”.
Paula Boyden, veterinary director at the Dogs Trust, said: “Having your beloved pet stolen is an extremely stressful, often heart-breaking experience.
“For years, Dogs Trust has called for harsher penalties to deter those who profit from this despicable crime.
“We wholeheartedly welcome the measures the government has taken today to tackle pet theft and prioritise the welfare of our pets as sentient beings, and very much hope that the increased sentencing will make pet thieves think twice.”
Want us to report on an issue that matters to you? Contact us by clicking here
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies