AN animal-loving couple have told of their anguish after their beloved cat was killed near their home.

Graham and Claire Bartlett were left distraught by the death of four-year-old Claude, which was shot with an air weapon in daylight.

The animal left the home in Chaplehope Close, in the Haughton area of Darlington, at about 1.30pm on Tuesday.

"About 15 minutes later, he came screaming on back and came in," said Graham.

Claude lay on the floor and Claire could tell something was wrong. She rolled the animal over and found the wound.

Shortly after taking the cat to a veterinary surgery it died. An x-ray showed the pellet had ruptured its kidney.

Distraught, Graham said: "He's the centre of our universe. It was like having a child.

"He was murdered at the end of the day. He had every right to live, like the rest of us."

Since the shooting he has walked the streets, talking to residents and workmen in a bid to find out more about how the animal was shot.

Nobody had seen anybody unusual in the area, leading Mr Bartlett to believe the killer may be local.

Detective Sergeant Alec Francis, of Darlington police, said the matter was being treated very seriously.

"There is no justification whatsoever for inflicting gratuitous harm on an innocent animal," he said. "An incident like this is bound to cause upset to any family, particularly animal lovers."

The Bartletts' pet was a larger than average grey-coloured chartreux breed of cat.

Anybody who has any information is urged to contact Darlington police on (01325) 467681 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

The Northern Echo launched its award-winning Animal Watch campaign in conjunction with the RSPCA last year in a bid to highlight the region's appalling record of cruelty to animals.

Read more about the Animal Watch campaign here.