The government has announced plans to introduce ‘pet abduction’ as a new criminal offence, as recommended by the government’s pet theft taskforce in its report, published last week (3 September).

The taskforce was launched earlier this year (May 2021), in response to a perceived increase in pet theft during lockdowns. It comprised experts from Defra, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the police, Crown Prosecution Service, Border Force and local government. Evidence was considered from academics, animal welfare organisations, campaign groups, enforcement agencies and industry experts.

The report made several recommendations, with the key recommendation being the introduction of a pet abduction offence. Pet theft is currently treated as a loss of property under the Theft Act 1968. However, the introduction of an abduction offence would recognise the fact that animals are sentient beings, pets are valued more highly by their owners than mere property, and the theft of a pet causes emotional distress to both the animal and owner. 

In May, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was introduced to parliament; if passed in its current form, the bill will explicitly recognise animals as sentient beings under UK law. The bill also makes provision for an animal sentience committee, which will issue reports on how government policy has paid due regard to the welfare of animals as sentient beings.

The taskforce’s report found 70 per cent of thefts recorded by police involved dogs. In 2020, around 2,000 dog theft crimes were reported to police. Evidence suggests the price of some breeds increased by as much as 89 per cent over lockdown, which may also have fuelled criminal activity.

The detail of the new offence is yet to be determined, but it has been proposed that the scope of the offence should include dogs, with the inclusion of other animals to be explored during the development of the policy.

The report also highlighted improvements in identifying and tracking cases would be beneficial. Reliable data on pet theft is limited; improved recording and data collection would build a stronger evidence base on which to prosecute. 

Improvement in the recording of ownership and transfer data and new requirements to register additional details and a single point of access to microchipping databases will also support tracking lost and stolen dogs.

Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC, commented: "These proposals will make sure police can better identify and track down criminals who peddle in this heartless trade, whilst ensuring they are appropriately punished for their actions".

Home Secretary, Priti Patel, added: "Stealing a pet is an awful crime which can cause families great emotional distress whilst callous criminals line their pockets.

"The new offence of pet abduction acknowledges that animals are far more than just property and will give police an additional tool to bring these sickening individuals to justice".

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