How sick thieves are stealing dogs in lockdown and using them in dog fights or forcing them into puppy farms
HOWLING and crying at the door, Justine Watt’s Cocker Spaniel Misty is bereft, searching desperately for her litter of four six-week-old puppies.
Despite being too young to be separated from their mum, tragically her babies were snatched suddenly in the dead of night by cruel pet thieves looking to cash in on the staggeringly high demand for puppies during lockdown.
Sadly, this is not a one-off case, and animal campaign group Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance (Sampa) believe dog theft has worsened recently.CEO Debbie Matthews tells Sun Online: “We originally thought there would be a drop in dog thefts because of lockdown but found the numbers increased.”[Because] we’ve seen prices go through the roof for puppies during lockdown, you would expect criminals to cash in especially as there’s no real deterrents in place to stop dog theft.”There were more break-ins to houses and kennels, which meant there were more dogs taken at one time.”
Before lockdown, last year an average of six dogs were reported stolen every day across England and Wales.
Tragically, only around a fifth of stolen dogs were returned to their owners – and with puppies selling for double the usual rate online at the moment, it’s become a profitable industry for crooks looking to make a quick buck.
Here, The Sun Online takes a closer look at why thieves are targeting puppies now more than ever, and what happens to the stolen pets…
‘I dread to think what’s happened to my dogs’
It’s every pet owners’ worst nightmare to discover their pet is missing, and Justine Watts, 47, knows this only too well.
The 14 dogs were taken from licensed dog breeder Justine’s six-acre property in Upwell, Norfolk.
Speaking to The Sun Online, owner of JustDogz Justine says: “There were always dog thefts here and there, but with lockdown it’s become more calculated, and they’re taking ten to twenty [dogs] at a time. It’s becoming an everyday thing, and I feel frightened, and angry.
“Whoever targeted us must have been watching us.
“You never think someone would take your babies. When I discovered them missing, I hoped they’d just escaped.
“When it dawned on me they’d been stolen, I felt physically sick and just went into complete shock. I l felt like a zombie for a few weeks after – I lost half a stone from worry, and couldn’t sleep.”
While Justine has thankfully recovered three puppies after they were advertised for sale online at inflated prices, the others are sadly yet to be found.
She says: “At least I know the puppies will have been sold, going to loving homes where they’ll be treated part of the family and are safe.
“The adult dogs though, what’s happened to them and what kind of condition they’re being kept in, I dread to think.
“My main concern is they’ve been shipped off to puppy farms. I saw them take their first breath and open their eyes – the thought of them hiding away in a dark shed somewhere and lucky if they see daylight – it’s heartbreaking.”
Puppy popularity pushing up prices
Following the announcement of the UK-wide lockdown on March 23, Google searches for ‘buy a puppy’ increased by 120 per cent – with ‘adopt a puppy’ seeing a rise of 133 per cent.
Charities in the UK have also been overwhelmed recently with requests to adopt the last couple of months, with Dogs Trust rehoming 25 per cent more pups than this time last year.
The increase in demand has sent prices skyrocketing, especially for certain popular breeds.
According to Direct Line pet insurance research, for the sixth year in a row, Staffordshire Bull Terriers are the most popular breed of dog to be targeted by thieves, and there’s also been an increase in the number of crossbreeds and Cocker Spaniels stolen.
Justine adds: “I’m currently getting up to 200 email enquiries a day, whereas before lockdown it would be up to five, and people are prepared to pay insane prices.
“One of the stolen puppies, a Kennel Club registered Cocker Spaniel, was in the process of being sold when we got them back for £2,250, while I’d sold that puppy already for £1,200.”
Currently, Cocker Spaniels are being advertised on sites such as Pets4Homes for up to £3,500 each currently – over double their usual going rate.
The RSPCA’s top tips to keep your dogs safe from theft:
- Don’t leave your dog outside a shop on his own or in a car alone.
- Teach your dog a reliable recall for when you are out walking.
- Check your garden to make sure it is secure and if you have a gate then fit with a lock.
- Neuter your pet as this can reduce the likelihood of roaming.
- Make sure your pet is wearing a collar with an ID tag and that it is up to date. It is a legal requirement for a dog to have an ID tag with your name and address on it. The RSPCA also recommends including your mobile phone number on any ID tag as this can help reunite you with your pet quickly should he ever get lost or stolen.
- Microchip your pet and keep the details up to date so that if your pet does go missing or is stolen then there is a higher chance they can be reunited. It is a legal requirement to have your dog microchipped in England and Wales.
- Keep recent photographs of your pet and make a note of any distinguishing features.
Just a quick search on Facebook reveals hundreds of posts in missing dog groups written by frantic dog owners who believe their pet has been stolen – with some puppies just three weeks old when snatched, presumably to be sold underage to unsuspecting buyers for thousands.
Forced into puppy farming or for illegal dog fights
It is believed that dogs are stolen to be sold on, while some are illegally bred in puppy farms, or even used for dog fighting, which is why prospective puppy owners are encouraged to do their research before buying a pet, to avoid being scammed, or buying a stolen or imported pet.
Whether a puppy has been ‘farmed’ is not always obvious to a buyer either, so prospective puppy owners are urged to do their research to avoid fuelling the industry.
Describing the conditions dogs endure in farm conditions, RSPCA vet Michael Lazaris, 30, explains: “The conditions are horrific.
“You’ll have female dogs kept in crates and mated every few months.
“Dogs are covered in their own faeces, no access to water, kept in dark stuffy rooms. The puppies then get sold to third parties and you won’t be able to see the mother.”
Puppies from these conditions can also come with sometimes-fatal health conditions as well.
Michael adds: “The [animals are] often riddled with parasites, intestinal worms and many of them are younger than the minimum eight weeks, which means they’re taken away from their mothers far too early.
“You have clients who are excited they’ve got a new puppy and a day or two later they bring them in vomiting and passing profuse, bloody diarrhoea.”
‘Dog theft is seen as low risk with high rewards’
Campaign groups believe the punishments for stealing a beloved family pet fall well below par, and earlier this week campaigners met with MPs to appeal for tougher penalties to deter pet thieves, and Fern’s Law – a law that would make it compulsory for vets to check pets’ microchips in order to reunite stolen pets with their owners.
Currently it is an offence to steal a pet under the Theft Act 1968, carrying a maximum penalty of seven years.Sampa’s Debbie thinks thieves believe the risk is worth the gain however, saying: “Dog theft is seen as low risk with high rewards. Punishment, if the thieves are caught would be a minimum fine £250 + court costs.”Our dogs in law are seen as second hand goods and valued under £500, which is the reason why the magistrate courts hands are tied.”A case last year saw the thief walk out of court, having stolen two pugs, Betty and Harry who are still missing, paying £250 compensation and £400 court cost. What message does that send to dog thieves? It’s worth it.”
Sadly, theft hasn’t been the only pet-related issue in lockdown.
Since the government restrictions began, RSPCA rescuers have so far dealt with 42,685 incidents of animal cruelty, neglect and suffering.
Its cruelty hotline has received 2,443 reports of abandonment – an average of 39 incidents a day.
Their DogLost timeline can be viewed here.