Pet theft in the UK, the stats and how to protect dogs and cats

Find out the latest data on UK pet theft, what the law says and the top tips to prevent theft both at home and out and about.

Pet theft is nothing new but it has been brought into sharp focus throughout the pandemic and lockdowns as more people turned to pets for companionship. This resulted in soaring costs of pets and unfortunately some people, particularly organised crime gangs looking at pet theft to make illegal gains.

Even though there have been rises in pet theft during this period, the likelihood of this is still very low and some of the headlines we’ve seen during the Covid-19 outbreak are inaccurate.

Let’s dive into the figures to understand how pet theft has changed through the years, what levels it’s now at, the most targeted breeds and how to protect yourself and your 4-legged friend. 

How big is the pet theft problem?

The total number of dog thefts recorded has generally grown since 2015, although 2019 saw a drop in cases to 1,452 before rising again to 1,504 across 2020, a year on year rise of 3.5%. This data is for 33 of the 43 police forces across the country. If we extrapolate the data we expect there to be over 2,000 incidents of pet thefts across the UK in 2021.

Interestingly this rise in dog theft during the lockdown is in contrast to falling rates total theft offences in 2020, which decreased by 26%. Therefore showing that dog theft made up a larger proportion of total thefts across the country than previous years.

0%
Of pet thefts involve dogs or puppies.
0%
Increase in cat theft year on year. 
0%
Rise in cat theft between 2015 and 2020.
0%
Rise in pet thefts recorded by the Metropolitan Police in 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.

Whilst, we can see increases in the numbers, we can also see the impact of pet theft in perceptions of pet owners themselves. Two separate surveys of a combined 128,409 people have uncovered how pet owner are perceiving pet theft, and the actions they are taking to protect their pets.

0%
Have taken additional security measures to protect their pets.
0%
have had a dog stolen or know someone that has.
0%
have grown more fearful of taking pets for a walk during the day.
0%
have grown more fearful of taking pets for a walk at night.

Next we’ll take a look at how pet theft is tackled by police and the criminal justice system.

What does the law say?

Pet theft currently falls under the Theft Act 1968, it carries a maximum prison sentence of 7 years, but that full sentence is very rarely given. The Act defines a stolen pet to be a loss of property rather than a living animal. Perhaps this is why it has been seen as a low risk, high reward crime for gangs to focus on. The government has responded to this, and findings presented by its Pet Theft Taskforce, by creating a specific offence for pet abduction. Under this new law the emotional effect of pet theft on the owner will be taken into account.

The sentencing laws for this new crime is still to be announced but expect the severity to be stricter than the current Theft Act 1968.

Defra has also announced new animal welfare Bills. The Animal Welfare Bill will enhance protections for kept animals in Great Britain, it also formally recognises that animals are sentient beings. Whilst this new legislation is a positive step in tackling pet theft, there still appears to be a long way to go in convicting criminals for these offences.

How effective is the law now?

Police data from 2020 shows that less than 1% of dog theft cases resulted in a charge, other research puts this number at around 5%. Either way it works out at between 20 and 100 charges being brought.

The number of dogs that were successfully returned to their owners is also a number that is relatively stable year on year, 22% were reunited with their rightful owners. Sadly, with the number of pets being stolen increasing but the number of successful recoveries staying static, in real numbers more pets are going missing year on year.  

The proportion of dogs returned to their owners remained the same overall in 2020 compared to 2019, with just over a fifth (22%) of dogs reunited with their owners. The force which saw the greatest success for returning stolen dogs to their owners in 2020 was Warwickshire, reuniting 17 out of 23 stolen dogs (87%) with their families.

When it comes to cat theft, 2020 saw 13 cases reached the courts, but these were all brought by the Metropolitan Police. 

How and when pets are stolen

In the first part of the decade dog theft tended to peak in Spring, with March, April and May being the most likely months for dog theft. However, this has shifted later in the calendar year with October and December being more prevalent since 2015.

Let’s take a look below at where pets are being stolen from, and what pet owners need to be aware of when safeguarding their 4-legged friends. 

52%

Pets stolen from front and back gardens.

19%

Pets stolen after breaking into homes.

16%

Stolen from owners whilst walking dogs.

7%

Stolen when tied up outside shops.

Types of pets being stolen

We’ve seen that there is a rise in theft of both dogs and cats, but you can also see rises in fish and bird theft which actually exceed the number of cats stolen. 

Focusing in on dogs however there are certain types of canine that appear to be the target of thieves. 

0%
stolen dogs are small or toy
0%
described as large or giant pets
0%
Puppy or young adults stolen

Most likely breeds to be targeted

The most common breeds targeted by thieves so far this year with cats remain Bengals and Maine Coons. While for dogs stolen in 2021 so far the list is: 

17%

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

 

7%

Chihuahua

 

6%

Jack Russell

 

4%

French Bulldog

 

4%

Labrador

 

3%

Pug

 

3%

English Bulldog

 

3%

German Shepherd

 

3%

Yorkshire Terrier

 

3%

Cocker Spaniel

 

Experiences of pet theft

Four of our Cocker Spaniels were stolen from our kennels in 2018. Looking for our dogs has become an obsession which has occupied the last 3 years and continues to do so. We have managed to find and recover three dogs but did so on our own after finding support from police and pet organisations lacking.

 

Thieves had advertised all three dogs with puppies, they’d also removed the microchip and the tail from two of them. As a result of this cruelty, we have been left with a number of financial costs for legal costs as well as vet treatment for dental repair and behavioural issues caused by the trauma. The effect on our family life has been immense, it has become so emotionally draining, so much so my partner has suffered with depression, whilst our children have detached themselves from the dogs as they get nervous taking the dogs for walks.

 

Cocker Spaniel
JP
Cocker Spaniel Owner - South West England

Why are pets being stolen?

Why anyone would want to steal a pet is beyond us but sadly it does happen, and is generally the work of organised crime. It has been a particularly popular crime due to the relatively high reward and the low risk associated with it. With so few convictions brought against criminals, so few pets reunited with their owners and the short sentences offered to those that are caught it make a particularly attractive crime. 

Also, the stricter sentences and laws around alternative crime such as scrap metal theft has meant theives have shifted attention to pets. Pets are stolen by criminals for the following reasons:

  1. Selling on – Typically, stolen dogs will be sold on and this has become easier with the use of social media and online marketplaces such as Gumtree, Pets4Homes and UK Pets.
  2. To order – Some dogs are specifically stolen to satisfy demand from other people. Equally in some cases they are stolen for use by the thief themselves, particularly popular when it comes to dogs used for poaching.
  3. Breeding – Using stolen female dogs for breeding allows the thief to sell the litter, usually in a different part of the country from where the pet was stolen. 
  4. Dog fighting – Terribly, some dogs are stolen and used within dog fighting rings, this may go some way to explaining the high number of Staffies being targeted. 
  5. Ransom – this is the practice of stealing a pet and then demanding a payout from the genuine owner  for the pet’s safe return.

How to prevent pet theft

The recommendations of the Government’s report focused on three areas of improvement, which are:

  • Improving the traceability of online sales
  • Providing more assurance about where puppies come from
  • Supporting pilots of complementary methods identifying pets

However, there are things that each of us as responsible pet owners can do to safeguard our pets from theft both in and out of the house. Let’s take a look at the options. 

For your pet

  • Registering and identifying your dog: It’s a legal requirement to microchip your dog by the age of 8 weeks, but also ensure you keep the details updated on the registration databases.
  • Fit your dog with a collar: The tag on the collar should have your surname (the owner surname that is) alongside a contact number to reach you on in the event that your pet is located.
  • Pet trackers: Now technology is improving you can choose to fit a pet tracker to your pet, some of which have GPS tracking and an alert system giving you an indication of where you pet has been and where they may be, making them easier for you to track down.
  • Pictures: In the event that you find your pet you may need to verify ownership, so taking plenty of photos from different angles, in different conditions and of any distinctive markings will really help. 
  • Canine DNA: Now, you can find companies that can help to identify your pet via their DNA. Organisations can test and register your pet’s DNA for use later in the event of disappearance.

For your home

  • Home security: Gardens are an easy place for thieves to start when considering stealing a pet. Typical home security techniques such as fitting locks and alarms to any gates are an easy way to build a deterrent. Make sure to secure outside kennels as well if you have them.

For outside

  • Know your surroundings: When you’re out with your pet you should be aware of who is around you or leaving your pet alone even for a few minutes.
  • When shopping: Leaving your pet alone either in a car (which you shouldn’t do – particularly on hot days) or outside a shop for any period of time allows them to be easily targeted by thieves.
  • Dog walking: Beware of allowing your dog off the lead both if your dog isn’t yet able to return when called or if you’re walking in an area they’re less familiar with. Extending leads may prove a good investment for adventurous dogs. Finally, when out and about be wary of people asking you a lot of questions about your dog. Varying the time and destination of your dog walks can help to alleviate this risk.

What to do if your dog is stolen

In the event that your pet is stolen, there are a number of steps that you can take to improve your chance of finding your pet safe and well.

  • Report your pet as stolen with the police and ensure you make a note of your crime reference number.
  • Inform your local council, they may have dog warden services that could help when encountering stray pets.
  • Contact the microchip database that you have registered your pet with and let them know about the theft.
  • Submit your pet’s details and photos to lost pet websites such as PetLog and Pets Reunited sharing the crime reference number alongside your post.
  • Speak to local vet practices and rescue centers to see how they can help you advertise for the recovery of your pet.
  • Park noticeboards.
  • Post on social media particularly in local groups or pages.
  • Consider creating and posting missing pet posters in your local area.

How can pet insurance help if your pet is stolen

If you have pet insurance then your insurer will usually help to find your pet. Cover usually includes support for advertising to find your pet, a reward for you to offer and – in the event that you are unable to find your pet – a payout for the value of your pet. 

Find out more about how lost and found cover works.