Demand for dogs has increased during the coronavirus pandemic. The cost of some puppies, on Pets4Homes, is currently as high as £3,000.
According to Dog Lost, it is estimated thefts have risen by 250 per cent, with criminal gangs involved.
Last month, Sussex Police said it was taking action to prevent dog theft but claimed that reports in the county are ‘thankfully relatively low’.
However, Colin Butcher, a pet detective from Wisborough Green, said dog theft ‘is a problem in Sussex’.
Colin, who established The UK Pet Detectives in 2005, said a large of number of thefts are going unnoticed because of experienced criminals making it seem like the pet has simply run away.
“It is not always easy to prove it’s been stolen,” he said.
“The police have to have ‘reasonable belief’ that a crime has taken place.
“I would say as much as much as 60 per cent of thefts reported to police are not recorded as thefts.
“Dog thieves know the system.
“Most of them are rural crime specialists. They are focusing on dogs because there is so much money involved. They can make it look like a runaway.”
Former police sergeant Colin said there had recently been ‘quite a few cases’, where dogs were being stolen whilst unattended in back gardens, with the thieves making it look like the dog has escaped through a broken fence panel or an open gate.
Criminals have also been known to steal family pets from an unattended car, after a window has been left open.
Colin added: “The RSPCA recently announced that they are not going to bring any more prosecutions for animal cruelty.
“The police need to be collecting more crimes against dogs as, very soon, they are going to be the investigative authority working with the CPS on animal cruelty offences.
“We’re in a ridiculous situation where I am one of the leading authorities on dog thefts in Britain and I’m a civilian effectively. The police are asking me for intelligence.”
The maximum prison sentence is seven years in prison but Home Secretary Priti Patel has promised to look at tougher measures to stem the ‘absolutely shocking’ recent rise in thefts.
Ms Patel told LBC Radio that she was in talks about upgrading pet theft to a more serious offence, meaning stronger penalties could apply.
Sussex Police said it recorded 31 dog thefts in 2020 but at least 12 of those were disputes over dog ownership between known parties.
Inspector Andrea Leahy, from the Rural Crime Team, slammed dog theft as an ‘abhorrent crime’.
She said: “Criminals selfishly steal beloved pets from their families – sometimes to exploit these poor creatures by selling them on at inflated prices or breeding them for monetary gain.
“The emotional impact of a missing dog is considerable, with victims left bereft and searching for their much-loved family member, in some cases not knowing whether they have been lost or taken.”