Only 0.4% of dog thefts resulted in a suspect being charged last year, with the majority of cases ending without a culprit being identified.
An investigation by NationalWorld into dognappings across the UK has revealed a surge in thefts during 2020, giving weight to charities’ fears that the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated the issue.
Among the 27 police forces in England and Wales that responded to a Freedom of Information request with comparable data, 1,132 dog cases from 2020 had been wrapped up with an outcome recorded.
Of these, only five (0.4%) resulted in a charge or summons, and one (0.1%) in a caution.
There were 291 cases where a victim did not support further action by the police – 86 (7.6%) where a suspect had not been identified and 205 (18.1%) where one had.
But the majority of cases – 590, or 52.1% – had been closed because the crime had been investigated “as far as reasonably possible” and a suspect had not been identified.
NationalWorld approached the five police forces with the highest number of dog thefts per million residents for comment.
Several said the data on the number of thefts was lacking context, in that they were often linked to ownership disputes between ex-partners or family members – something that the lack of identifiable suspects would seem to contradict.
In Northumbria, 99 cases were recorded last year, all of which, a spokesperson claimed, were linked to domestic settings and disputes.
But 45 cases were recorded under the ‘investigation complete, no suspect identified’ crime outcome group.
The spokesperson said this did not automatically mean that a dog had been stolen in suspicious circumstances – but did not offer an alternative explanation.
Nationally, the proportion of dog thefts leading to charges has fallen in recent years, from 2.1% in 2018 and 1.1% in 2019.
Only cases that have been closed and which have a known outcome are included.
Stealing a pet is not a specific crime in UK law, coming instead under the general legislative umbrella of theft, meaning there are not dedicated sentencing guidelines.
The Home Office says the Sentencing Council of England and Wales updated its guidelines in 2016 to encourage judges and magistrates to take account of the emotional distress the theft of personal items can have, recommending higher penalties in such cases.
But both the RSPCA and the Dog’s Trust said it is the monetary or sale value of a pet that is taken into account when sentencing thieves, and that punishments handed out, such as fines, do not reflect the emotional impact on victims.
“We really want to see this changed so that the animal’s intrinsic value to their owner is considered,” an RSPCA spokesperson said.
“We welcome discussions on pet theft becoming a specific offence and hope that any progress in this area will see those who steal pets punished in a way which is proportionate to the emotional harm caused."
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Losing a much loved family pet can cause great distress and it’s a sad fact that criminals will seek to profit by this vile crime.
“Last month the Home Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs met to discuss a cross-government approach to combatting this issue and we will announce next steps in due course.
“This builds upon the huge amounts of work already undertaken by junior ministers and officials to combat this cruel and criminal practice.”