ANIMAL welfare officers in the region have backed legislation which would make it illegal for pet shops to sell animals to unaccompanied children under 16.

The Pet Animals (Amendment) Bill will be introduced in the House of Commons today, by Southend MP David Amess.

At the moment, children as young as 12 can buy a hamster, puppy or snake from a pet shop, even when not accompanied by an adult.

"We feel that animal welfare would be better protected if this age limit was raised," said Alan Wolinski, RSPCA Yorkshire and North East regional manager.

"If this ten-minute rule Bill became law, it would remove the potential of children acting on impulse and making ill-judged purchases. We are urging MPs to support this move."

David Haw, owner of Cockerton Aquatics and Pets, Darlington, said he also supported the Bill.

"I would support a Bill raising the age to 16," he said. "If we sell a guinea pig or puppy to a child under 16 who isn't accompanied by an adult, it can give us a bad name.

"Sometimes parents can go ballistic if their child buys a pet and they have not approved."

The RSPCA said it would ideally like the age restriction raised to 18 years to help reduce the number of unwanted and abandoned animals bought on impulse.

In 1999, the society rehomed 100,000 unwanted and rescued animals.