Published: 06:00, 08 May 2021
| Updated: 06:43, 08 May 2021
The rapid rise in pet thefts since lockdown is to be investigated by a new government taskforce.
Bringing together police, animal welfare groups and government officials, its aim will be to look at the reported increase in animal thefts and draw up fresh tactics to end the problem.
The RPSCA has launched a probe into the incidents, following claims the unsuspecting felines had been caught in a trap.
And in March, police confirmed they were investigating a number of reports of thieves trying to steal dogs, particularly in remote rural spots of Canterbury.
During one of the incidents a walker was threatened with a stick in Blean Woods by a man demanding he hand over his pooch.
In an announcement this morning, ministers said "considerable rises" in the cost of puppies and kittens during the pandemic - prompted by a growth in pet ownership - may be contributing to the spike in thefts.
DogsTrust says the price of the UK’s most sought-after breeds grew by as much as 89% during the first lockdown, while Google searches for "buy a puppy" increased by 166% over the same period.
The new taskforce, unveiled by Environment Secretary George Eustice, will gather evidence to help officials understand all the factors that may be contributing to a rise before recommending necessary measures needed to tackle the problems.
He said: “Pets are much-loved members of the family, and these reports will be distressing for all pet owners. Pet owners shouldn’t live in fear so we’ve set up this taskforce to thoroughly investigate the issue and ensure that we have the measures in place to stop these criminals in their tracks.”
Successes in tackling other types of theft, such as mobile phones and metal and how to clamp-down most effectively on illegal markets, will be studied as part of efforts.
Stealing a pet is a criminal offenc, with offenders facing a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose department will become part of the new crime-fighting team, said: “Having callous thieves steal a much-loved pet is heart-breaking for families and it is deplorable that criminals seek to profit from this cruel crime.
“We are already taking action to combat such lawlessness by bolstering the police with 20,000 extra officers but this new taskforce will ensure we know how best to combat the driving forces behind this distressing crime and clamp down on the perpetrators.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs added the taskforce will aim to report its findings and recommendations in the autumn.
As well as pulling together police and officials from numerous government departments, the taskforce will also speak to animal welfare and campaign groups to hear their views on the issues.
Deputy Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman says the new group will gather intelligence from across the country.
She said: “Dog theft is a very emotive issue which has a huge impact on families or individuals and we are aware of a growing concern around this issue.
"The taskforce will support us in understanding this risk and also identifying trends involving serious and organised crime.
“The taskforce will enable us to gather intelligence across the country and tackle groups who work across geographical boundaries.
"We hope that this is a step forward in providing reassurance that we are committed to understanding any risks fully, and challenging related criminal behaviour.”
Pet owners are also being asked to remain vigilant.
Police advice includes never leaving a pet unattended while out in public, varying routines when walking dogs and taking basic security steps at home, such as checking locks on doors and garden gates.
Anyone with information about the crimes is being encouraged to share it, anonymously, with Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or by completing an online form.