Mandates in the wake of COVID-19 haven’t been especially popular with a weary public, but surveys show one proposed directive has almost universal support in the UK: Requiring all cat owners get their pets microchipped.
Cat thefts in the UK have tripled in the last five years, with the pandemic contributing to the increase since early 2020, police say. Authorities say they hope compulsory microchipping — and consolidating the many chip ID databases into one — will help discourage people from stealing while making it easier to reunite felines with their families.
Thieves mostly target pedigreed kitties over moggies, with Bengals as the most commonly-stolen cats, followed by British Shorthairs and Persians, according to police statistics. Thieves try for breed cats because of resale value, police say.
Dog thefts have skyrocketed as well, with thieves targeting Chihuahuas, Jack Russell Terriers and German Shepards, among other popular breeds. The price of breed dogs has ballooned by as much as 89 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, when demand for new pets and a slowdown in breeding created a boom market.
For context, an estimated 3.2 million British families welcomed new pets, mostly cats and dogs, into their homes since the first lockdowns in late winter and spring of 2020, the BBC reported. Like their counterparts here in the States, UK shelters experienced unprecedented adoption rates as people battled loneliness and depression during the initial COVID waves and last year’s long winter when the virus came back with a vengeance.
“The number one reason behind pet theft is because the prices for pets have gone up drastically,” Becky Thwaites, spokeswoman for UK pet charity Blue Cross, told SWLondoner. “This happened exponentially over lockdown, as responsible breeders stopped breeding due to social distancing guidance, but more people were wanting pets.”
Despite the spike in animal thefts, only about one percent of all such crimes have led to an arrest, according to a public information request by a UK animal welfare group.
Police have been reluctant to pour resources into those cases, partly because the law lacks serious consequences for people who steal animals. While the maximum sentence for stealing a pet is seven years in jail, under current UK law sentences are pegged to the value of the stolen item. (Unlike the US, the UK does not make a distinction between prison and jail.)
But for people who love their cats, it’s not about the monetary value — it’s about sentiment, love and the distress to human and animal when they’re separated.
Abductions instead of thefts
To change that, a new pet theft task force — set up earlier this year to study the growing problem — recommended a change in the law. Instead of treating pet thefts as property thefts, under the proposal they would be treated as abductions, with all the increased charges and consequences that come with the classification.
Treating animal thefts as abductions “acknowledges that animals are far more than just property and will give police an additional tool to bring these sickening individuals to justice,” UK Home Secretary Priti Patel told the BBC.
Advocates say treating pet thefts as abductions makes sense not just as a legal adjustment, but also as a reflection of the way cats and dogs are stolen. While some thieves stalk dog parks and lure pets away with treats, others have taken to more brazen and violent means like taking animals by force and jumping people while they’re walking their dogs.
The change would require owners to have their kittens chipped by 20 weeks and adult cats chipped upon adoption from a shelter or rescue. Failure to microchip a pet would result in a warning and a three-week grace period. After that, cat owners would face a steep fine of £500, equal to $660 in USD.
Consolidating chip databases
There are about 10.8 million pet cats in the UK, although widespread chipping alone won’t solve the problem of pet thefts and lost pets flooding shelters. There are currently 16 different microchip databases in the UK. They don’t always share information and scans don’t cover each of the databases, so even if a cat is recovered, brought to a shelter and scanned, there’s no guarantee the kitty will be returned home.
The existence of so many non-cooperating databases operated by private companies “can pose a huge barrier to successful reunification of pets” said the British Veterinary Association’s Malcolm Morley.
UK authorities and the animal welfare groups pushing for the change are cognizant of the problem and want to streamline the 16 existing database into one central repository of cat microchip registration. That will take time and will have to include compromise on the part of the various private companies running the existing fractured databases.
“Every day, we see how important microchipping is for cats and for the people who love them,” said Pet Protection’s Jacqui Cuff, “whether it’s reuniting a lost cat with their owner, identifying an injured cat, or helping to ensure an owner can be informed in the sad event that their cat has been hit and killed by a car.”