THE North-East has underlined its position as the animal cruelty capital of the country following three more acts of brutality.

The most disgraceful act came to light yesterday after a cat was found beheaded in Darlington.

It was first thought that the animal may have been killed by accident because its head was discovered near the town's Bank Top railway station.

But an examination by a vet revealed its neck had not been severed cleanly, and its skull had also been crushed, indicating that it had been deliberately killed.

RSPCA inspector Garry Palmer said: "It would appear that the cat has been killed maliciously, and we are hoping people will come forward with information about it.

"This is a sick and barbaric attack on a defenceless animal and we need to get the people who did this."

In another incident, a lurcher was found emaciated and covered with old scars and a massive week-old infection which exposed the muscles and bones of a front leg.

The dog, picked up by police after being struck by a car on the A19, near Sunderland, also had a wound which had been crudely stitched closed with sewing cotton.

It has been given a new lease of life and is being looked after by veterinarian surgeon Katherine Heathcote, and her husband, Peter, who run the Reptile Trust, at Burnopfield, near Consett, County Durham.

Mrs Heathcote said the dog, which has been named Tara, had more than likely been a hare coarser but had been dumped when she was no longer of use to her owner.

It appears she was knocked down about a week ago and had spent several days on the side of the road, before she was knocked down again.

In the last incident, a dog had to be rescued from the banks of the River Skerne in Darlington after apparently being thrown from a bridge.

The small black mongrel was rescued by firefighters at about 1.30am yesterday and taken for treatment to the town's Grange Veterinary Hospital.

Anyone who has lost a dog matching its description should visit Darlington police station in St Cuthbert's Way.

Anyone with information about the beheaded cat can contact the RSPCA on (08705) 555999.