Dog thefts: UK police data reveals surge in dognappings during Covid pandemic

With reports of dog thefts flooding the media during the last year, our exclusive investigation reveals the truth behind the alarmist headlines.

Charities say a rise in demand for dogs - especially 'designer' brands - has driven a surge in thefts.

UK police forces recorded a 13% rise in dog theft crimes during 2020, an investigation by NationalWorld can reveal.

Amid mounting concern that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in puppy thefts and dognappings, NationalWorld sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all 46 police forces in the UK.

Sign up to our NationalWorld Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

These show there were 1,208 thefts recorded in 2020 by the 29 police forces that responded, a 13% increase from the 1,068 reported in 2019.

That’s an average of 23 thefts per week – almost three more per week than the previous year.

Many incidents will involve multiple dogs being stolen at once, meaning the number of pets snatched will be higher still.

And with several large police forces failing to respond or not providing comparable figures – including London’s Metropolitan Police, Merseyside and Essex – the true number of dog thefts is likely to be far greater.

Police Scotland was one of seven forces to reject the request, saying they had no way to retrieve the data without trawling through every crime record individually – and exceeding FOI cost limits as a result.

Dog theft is not a specific crime in UK law, with pets grouped together with inanimate property under general theft offences.

This means the data is not as reliable as for specific offences, because it relies on police forces being able to perform keyword searches of their records to find thefts that involved dogs.

The true rise in dog thefts in the UK

UK newspapers have been awash with reports of an increase in dog snatchings during the pandemic.

But most figures cited by the media have come from third-party sources such as insurance companies or charities, reporting an increase in claims or requests for help tracking down their stolen companions.

Pet theft charity DogLost said earlier this year that it had recorded a 170% increase in stolen dogs reported on its website.

The figure was reported widely in the media but queried by academics Dr Helen Selby-Fell and Dr Daniel Allen, who speculated this could be down to an increasingly proactive approach by the charity or increased media exposure of their work.

The academics’ own research suggests the increase in dog thefts in 2020 was only 3.5%.

Advice for owners from Dog’s Trust

But the police data obtained by NationalWorld has shown fears around Covid dognappings are well founded, with the charity Dog’s Trust saying it is “no wonder dog theft is on the increase” given the high demand and the rise in prices over the past year.

“Many dogs are taken from homes and gardens every year so we would urge all dog owners to make sure their gardens are secure along with their homes and ideally never leave your dog alone in the garden,” a spokesperson said.

“We would also advise that owners should never leave their dog unattended when out and about, always keep them in sight and also make sure they are trained to come back to you, however distracted they might be.”

The RSPCA also said it was “really concerning” to see evidence of increased thefts in some parts of the UK, and urged owners to report incidents to the police immediately, contact their microchip company, and alert local rescue groups, vets, dog walkers and neighbours.

A spokesperson said: “As an animal welfare charity the RSPCA doesn’t deal directly with pet theft – leaving criminal matters such as this to the expertise of police – but we believe the rise in dognapping could be as a result of the surging popularity, and value, of fashionable and ‘designer’ breeds.”

A message from the editor:

Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand, produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Find out more about who’s who in the team, and our editorial values. We want to start a community among our readers, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going