Pet abduction to be made new criminal offence in crackdown on pet theft

Pet abduction to be made new criminal offence in crackdown on pet theft
  • Pet Theft Taskforce delivers report with recommendations to tackle reported rise of pet theft
  • Government working with the police to improve recording and tracking of pet abduction cases
  • Improvements to pet microchipping processes to support the identification of lost and stolen dogs
 
A new criminal offence for pet abduction is set to be introduced under government plans to crack down on pet theft following a reported rise in pets being stolen during the pandemic. The new law will recognise the welfare of animals and that pets are valued as more than property.
 
The new offence is one of several recommendations in a report published today by the Government’s Pet Theft Taskforce which was launched in May 2021. The Taskforce, made up of officials from Defra, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice along with operational partners including the police CPS, Border Force and Local Government, considered evidence from academics, animal welfare organisations, campaign groups, enforcement agencies and industry experts.
 
Since its establishment, the Taskforce has considered available evidence from academics, animal welfare organisations, campaign groups, enforcement agencies and industry experts to help inform its recommendations.
 
The report found that seven in 10 of the animal thefts recorded by the police involve dogs. Evidence suggests that around 2,000 dog theft crimes were reported to police in 2020, causing considerable distress for owners and their pets alike. The price of some breeds increased by as much as 89% over lockdown as people spent more time at home, potentially making dog theft more appealing to criminals looking to profit from the spike in public interest in owning a pet.
 
The Taskforce’s recommendations include:
  • The creation of a new ‘pet abduction’ offence – Pet theft is currently treated as a loss of property to the owner, but we know that does not reflect the true severity of this crime. The new offence will prioritise the welfare of our pets as sentient beings and recognise the emotional distress to the animal in addition to its owner.
  • Identifying and tracking cases – Reliable data on pet theft is limited and improved recording and data collection about these crimes will build a stronger evidence base about the problem.
  • Improving the recording of ownership and transfer data – New requirements to register additional details and a single point of access to microchipping databases will support tracking lost and stolen dogs.
  • Tackling the fear of crime – Police will work together with partner agencies to raise awareness about police initiatives and prevention measures
These changes will make it easier for the police to track pet abduction incidents making it easier to clamp down on offenders. The Home Office will ensure that pet abduction is recorded in a consistent manner across police forces, while officials from each department will be able to review the way data is collected across the criminal justice system.
Pet microchip databases will also be made more accessible under the proposals. There are currently 16 microchipping databases in England, however the Taskforce found that they can be difficult to navigate for pet owners and law enforcement, making it difficult to trace stolen dogs. Under the new proposals a single point of access to all databases will simplify and streamline the system and more robust rules will also be introduced across all of the pet microchipping databases for recording the transfer of dogs to new owners to ensure full traceability.
 
Taken together, these proposals will make it far harder for thieves to steal and sell pets, will make it easier for the police to catch them, and will ensure that the impact on the animal is reflected in the sentences or penalties given to offenders.
 
The new measures will also allow the Government to capture more data on pet theft crimes and raise awareness of police activity in combatting the issue and actions owners can take to keep their pets safe.
 
Environment Secretary George Eustice said:
 
“Pets are much loved members of the family in households up and down the country, and reports of a rise in pet theft have been worrying. Pet owners shouldn’t have to live in fear, and I am pleased this report acknowledges the unique distress caused by this crime.
 
“Its recommendations will reassure pet owners, help the police to tackle pet theft, and deliver justice for victims.  We will consider its findings carefully and work with colleagues across Government to start implementing its recommendations.”
 
 
The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, said:
 
“Many of us have sought the companionship of pets during the pandemic which makes this crime even more cruel.  
 
“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 said:
 
“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.
 
“At the same time, police will continue to work to raise awareness about how owners can best to protect pets from being targeted.”
 
Taskforce partner, Deputy Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman said:
 
“The work of the taskforce means that police forces across the country will now be better placed to respond to pet theft through an improved recording process and a specific crime that recognises pets as valued members of the family with a significant emotional impact”.
“We would also encourage anyone buying a puppy or dog to make sure that they are buying from a responsible and genuine home. Advice on checks that can help buyers make the right choices is available through Blue Cross or RSPCA website.”
RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said:
 
“We’re really pleased to hear the Government’s Pet Theft Taskforce recommendations. Pet theft can leave families in utter turmoil and have serious welfare implications for animals ripped away from everything they know.
 
“The new Pet Abduction Offence will acknowledge the seriousness of this crime and we hope this will encourage courts to hand out much tougher sentences to pet thieves. We’re also thrilled that the Government wants to simplify the microchipping database system and we believe this will help to tackle pet theft as well as other animal welfare issues and irresponsible pet ownership generally.”
   
 
The police advise that dog owners should avoid leaving their pet unattended while out in public, vary their routines when walking their dogs and should take basic security steps at home such as checking locks on doors and garden gates. The Blue Cross has also published detailed guidance for pet owners on how they can protect their animals from theft.
 
The Taskforce’s recommendations are part of the Government’s commitment to further strengthening the UK’s position as a global leader in animal welfare standards, as outlined in the Action Plan for Animal Welfare, and follow Defra’s recent announcement of new measures to crack down on the illegal smuggling of dogs and puppies.

Databases

There have been many concerns expressed about the plethora of databases (14 as I write this), reportedly there are failures to communicate between some of them. There are also issues being caused by double registration which can lead to confusion over owners and current addresses.

In Nov 2020 the MTA have changed their constitution to allow membership of databases to try to establish a standard requirement - which is already required by DEFRA but apparently not well enforced. MTA membership will require full compliance with the DEFRA requirements.

More later…

Microchip cats

RESPONSE TO A CALL FOR EVIDENCE ON COMPULSORY CAT MICROCHIPPING

This response is provided by the Microchip Trade Association. We represent the majority of the companies that supply microchips used for animal identification in the UK.
Question 1 : What are the advantages and disadvantages related to the compulsory microchipping of cats?
Advantages

Ability to identify cats killed due to RTA, so as to give closure to its owner.
Cats can regularly stray, especially when families move, so would help with reunification.
Should result in fewer cats being held in welfare as the reunification would be quicker, and so be less of a cost to rescues.
Should prevent unnecessary rehoming eg a cat getting rehomed before the original owner is found.
Microchipping is potentially more important with a cat than a dog as they generally don’t wear collars.
Health problems or poor breeding could be traced back to the breeder, if the onus is put on the breeder to have a microchip implanted and have it registered to themselves before selling.
Breeders/welfares remain in the animal history on a database and could more frequently take cats back if the owner can’t be found.
Identification for insurance purposes ensures the correct cat is covered under claims ie it could reduce fraudulent claims
Gives authenticity to breeders who comply.


Disadvantages
o Cats roam freely, sometimes even choosing more than one home, so it may not resolve ownership disputes.
o Owners would need to ensure their details are correct on the database which is proving difficult with dogs.
o Feral cats and community cats would be a problem. Who, if anyone, would take responsibility?
o Most responsible cat owners already microchip their cats, so how would this requirement be advertised to get to the owners who currently don’t chip their cats.
o There is patchy enforcement with dog microchipping, despite Councils being obligated to deal with stray dogs. So who would be responsible for enforcing cat microchipping and how would this be funded?
Question 2 : Do stray cats cause a public nuisance?
Cats are naturally free moving and as a general rule are not a public nuisance other than occasionally:-

To road users, or
Getting through other people’s cat flaps (although microchipped cat flap has aided this issue)
Question 3 : What would be the cost of introducing compulsory microchipping of cats for owners, local authorities and others?
Owners : There would be a modest fee in the region of £30 charged by implanters, which would also cover the first registration. Updating the database would be an additional cost, which varies depending on which database the microchip is registered on and also the level of service being purchased.
Local authorities : If they are to be expected to deal with enforcement, then this could be a considerable burden. However, we anticipate that there would be ‘light touch’ enforcement and so the emphasis would be on a compliance strategy ie the carrot rather than the stick approach. We believe it is about the benefits of compliance rather than the detriment of enforcement.
Rescues : This could actually save rescues money as they could rehome or reunite quicker. Clearly, this is a considerable welfare benefit as well.
Question 4 : What should happen to unowned (feral) cats and others where ownership is unclear (community cats) or where there may be a dispute on ownership?
Realistically, we can’t see that unowned (feral) cats would be microchipped. For community cats (where a cat may have several families that look after it) we also forsee they would be unmicrochipped. We believe that only owned cats should be microchipped and the Regulations should stipulate:-
That person is presumed to be the owner, and
If a cat is not microchipped it shall be presumed that the cat does not have an owner
By providing these incentives, we believe that owners are more likely to see the benefit of having their cat microchipped.
Question 5 : Should there be any exemptions for short term visits?
It should be the same as for dogs.
Question 6 : How could compulsory microchipping of cats be enforced?
There are two issues here:-
a) Who should enforce it? Realistically, we don’t believe there would be much enforcement because in the absence of a cat being a nuisance then it would be difficult to see how it could be in the public interest for public money to be spent on enforcement. Ideally, there should be provision for a Fixed Penalty Notice for non compliance as that could act as an incentive for Local Authorities and this would need to be set at an amount whereby Councils could recover the cost of enforcement.
b) Who should have the duty to get a cat implanted? Ideally, it would be nice to think that an ‘owner’ should be required to have their cat microchipped. However, this would depart from the model used in dog microchipping (where we look at the ‘keeper’) and in any event there is no one single piece of evidence that conclusively proves who owns a cat. Potentially, the duty could be placed on the person who has ‘responsibility’ for the cat, as this would use a term already used in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 but, to make sure that feral cats and community cats aren’t included, it could be expressly provided that this duty does not extend to cats which are living in a wild state. If a long lead-in time is provided for, then initially it could be a requirement that cats are microchipped prior to transfer and that the duty to update is placed on the seller – that way eventually all owned cats should become microchipped after a few years – and put the onus on the new owner to ensure that the details are kept up to date.

Question 7 : What obligations should be placed on databases, implanters & in cases of adverse reactions?
Control needs to remain over who can microchip any animal, cats are more difficult than dogs and require as much if not more training especially regarding handling. Should remain only vets, vet nurses and lay implanters trained by a DEFRA Approved provider (subject to grandfather rights for a period of time)
DEFRA left the databases with little guidance for dog microchipping. If that scheme was to continue to rely on database operators it needs some minor changes to the current legislation to help them achieve their goals:
Currently databases are not properly tested for compliance; this issue will be compounded if cats are added to the mix. E.g. 24/7 lost and found telephone number, GDPR compliance, strict procedures in place for change of keepership. Each compliant database could be asked to cover cost of their own compliance testing by an independent company and to sign up to a code of best practice so if they stop complying measures can be taken to enforce it. This should be checked on an annual basis.
Put the onus on the implanter to create first registration as this will minimise the number of unregistered microchips that have been implanted, currently still a big problem with dogs.

Clarification in the regulations that a microchip must only be registered on one compliant database in order to remove the issue of duplicate registration which causes issues with reunification.
Adverse reaction reporting, although the scheme is there and people are reporting, currently it is not believed that anything is done with the data collected or published in anyway.

Currently most compliant databases are doing their best. If the dog legislation was tightened, a Code of Practice put in place and checks introduced it would see all databases operating together to the same goal rather than just trying to take as many registrations as possible without keeping up the standards. (Work together not against each other, focusing on welfare and reunification)

Question 9 : What should be the most appropriate lead-in time?

It depends greatly on where responsibility to have cat microchipped lies. If it’s just on the initial seller (breeder), it would be quicker to roll out than placing the duty on all existing owners.
Question 10 : Do you have statistics on the number of cats already microchipped?
We don’t have access to any statistics of this nature
Question 11 : How should the Regulations be introduced?
Our preference would be to have separate cat Regulations which could be introduced under the power in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. If after the DEFRA review on the dog Regulations it was decided that changes should be made, then we see there could be merit in them being combined.
Question 12 : What exemptions should be available?
In line with dogs there should be an exemption if microchipping would be detrimental to health. The dog Regulations stipulate puppies must be microchipped by the age of 8 weeks of age (or on transfer if that is sooner), but we would suggest 12 weeks for kittens.
Question 13 : How should enforcement be funded?
It could be self-funding if it was enforced by Fixed Penalty Notices set at an appropriate level. What is perhaps more pressing is how to fund the education campaign that would be needed to initially bring this to the attention of cat owners. Perhaps there could be collaboration between DEFRA, Vets, Welfare and Compliant databases to get the message out there about the benefits of compliance.

Training courses

Various members of the MTA offer training courses, the MTA helped design the original LANTRA course but there are others. Please contact members directly through their websites.