Pet theft: what’s the law?
A petition asking the government to reclassify the theft of a pet “to a specific crime in its own right” has been signed by over 100,000 people.
The petition says: “Pet theft is currently seen as no different to the theft of an inanimate object—despite pets being sentient beings. The theft of pets is generally categorised as robbery or burglary, but lead to minimal sentences.”
As it got over 100,000 signatures, it was debated in parliament.
What’s the law?
In February 2018 the government was asked about the “potential merits” of introducing a new specific offence for theft of a pet, in a written question.
The government answered by pointing out that the Sentencing Council’s updated guidelines for theft say that when assessing harm caused by a crime, emotional distress should be taken into account when sentencing. These guidelines cover England and Wales.
During the debate on pet theft following the petition, Gareth Johnson MP said: “The guidelines say that if an animal—or anything—that is taken has a value of less than £500, it is very difficult for the court to give a custodial sentence.”
The Sentencing Council puts theft into four categories, depending on the value of goods taken and additional harm caused by the crime. Category four is the lowest impact type of theft, for “low value goods stolen (up to £500) and little or no significant additional harm to the victim or others”. The Council’s starting point for sentencing a category four theft is a high level community order. Category three thefts involve medium value goods with no significant harm, or low value goods with significant additional harm, and the starting point is a year in custody.
The Minister of state for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, said: “although the Theft Act provides for a maximum sentence of seven years, there is scant evidence of that being used.”
“At the moment the Government are not convinced that we need to change the law,” he said.
He added that the “Government interpret the latest guidance from the Sentencing Council that the theft of a pet should generally be treated as a category two or three offence.”
In 2016 it became compulsory in England to microchip dogs, and the penalty for not doing so can be a fine of up to £500. Once a dog has been microchipped, their number can be registered on one of several government-approved animal databases.
There have been reports of stolen pets being found with their microchips removed.
How many pets are stolen a year?
The government said in response to the petition that there are “no official statistics available” on the number of pet thefts, or indeed, how many pet dogs there are in the UK.
In answer to a written question in April 2018 on the number of people prosecuted for pet theft, the government said the information was “not held centrally”.
It also said: “Records of prosecutions for offences under section 1 of the Theft Act 1968 do not provide breakdowns of the item or animal stolen.”
Several charities and companies have attempted to put together their own figures by making Freedom of Information requests to police forces. Recently, Direct Line put requests out to 45 police forces in the UK, and say they received the data they’d requested from 38 of those.
They found that around 1,900 dogs were reported stolen in 2017 and just under 1,800 were the year before, equivalent to around 35 per week.
During the petition debate, Gareth Johnson MP said: “In some police forces, when the police turned up to a complaint about a dog being stolen from someone’s garden, it was recorded as the theft of a dog, but in others it was recorded as a missing pet” leading to a “very varied” picture of dog theft numbers around the country.