A PETITION for tougher sentencing for pet thefts has received hundreds of thousands of signatures, with a raft of support from North East MPs.

Currently pet thefts including stealing a dog is an offence under the Theft Act 1968 – dogs are classed as property so criminals could get the same punishment for stealing a dog as they would to steal a bike.

Dogs and other pets to some people are like family members or children and the rise in theft cases has urged people to make a stand to stop criminals stealing animals that are a lifeline through loneliness.

The petition which closed on May 20, gathered 316,535 signatures.

READ MORE: Lost dogs reunited with owners thanks to social media

Matt Vickers MP for Stockton South has written an open letter to the Home Secretary Priti Patel urging her to put harsher sentences in place as part of a solution to the rising problem of dog theft.

Mr Vickers has called for larger deterrents to be put in place to tackle rising cases of pet theft.

Recent figures from Cleveland Police show that the number of dogs stolen in the constituency rose to 50 in 2020, up 35 per cent from the previous year.

On top of this, out of the 156 dogs stolen in the wider area only 40 were recovered.

Nationally, in 2020 over 1,069 pets were stolen.

Of these, only 23 per cent of animals were recovered.

The conviction rate from these crimes is only 3 per cent.

The estimated recent 250 per cent rise of pet crime has been linked to the increased demand for pets throughout the pandemic.

Mr Vickers said: “Pets are more than just animals. They are an extension of the family.

“This is why I am campaigning for tougher sentencing for pet thieves.

“For many people through these lockdowns their cat or dog has been their sole companion keeping them from experiencing the worst effects of loneliness. It is simply not right that, as it stands, stealing a pet could land you with a lesser sentence than stealing a bike.

“With a rise in the price of pets as a result of a sharp hike in demand during the pandemic, it is no surprise that pet thieves are looking to cash in. We need harsher penalties for those that commit this heinous crime to deter potential criminals and truly reflect the wickedness of the act.

“It is imperative that the emotionally impact of having a pet stolen is finally taken seriously in sentencing.”

The loss or theft of a dog is often priceless but with tougher sentences thieves could be deterred from snatching, breeding and selling on dogs and puppies.

Environment Secretary George Eustice announced a Pet Theft Taskforce to investigate the recent reported rise in pet theft since the start of lockdown. With a surge of pets being bought during lockdown, this has also led to an increase in pets being stolen by those wanting to cash in on the demand.

The new taskforce will gather evidence to understand the factors that may be contributing the rise in thefts and to recommend any necessary measures to tackle the problem.

In February, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that she was in talks about upgrading pet theft to a more serious offence. The maximum sentence is currently seven years in prison under the Theft Act.

Mr Vickers said: “With instances of pet theft on the rise not only nationally but also in Stockton, I very much welcome this new taskforce.

“I’m confident that it will deliver sound recommendations to tackle this horrendous crime and reassure constituents that this Government is taking the issue seriously.

“Currently, we find ourselves in the unacceptable situation where stealing a bike could get you a harsher punishment than stealing a valued member of the family. I do hope that this taskforce will consider stricter penalties for pet theft to reflect the emotional impact of losing an animal.”

The petition’s aim is for the Government to create a specific offence for dog theft, with eight years minimum sentencing and a fine of at least £5,000.

The pet Taskforce was launched on May 8. According to Dogs Trust, the price for five of the UK’s most sought-after breeds grew significantly during the first lockdown with the price of some breeds rising by as much as 89 per cent.

Google searches for ‘buy a puppy’ increased by 166 per cent in the months between March and August following the start of lockdown last year.

Recent police investigations into dog theft have also resulted in numerous raids and arrests on suspicion of theft and animal cruelty.

The new taskforce has been set up to gather evidence to understand the factors that may be contributing to any perceived rise in thefts and to recommend any necessary measures to tackle the problem.

The Government said the Taskforce will learn lessons from successes in tackling other types of theft, such as mobile phone or metal theft, and how to clamp down most effectively on this illegal market and those engaged in it.

If someone causes an animal to suffer in the cause of stealing it from its owner, then they are also liable to prosecution for offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.