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Opinion: Urgent review of laws and microchip system needed to curb rising dog thefts

Law where pets are a ‘low value possession’ alongside plant pots and mobile phones should be reviewed, writes vet Dr Sharon Alston.

Dr Sharon Alston Animal Welfare and Veterinary Care Ireland

COVID HAS HIGHLIGHTED many of society’s positives and negatives but one of the most disturbing consequences of the enforced home isolation is the sudden ‘trend’ to splash out on a new family pet.

Dogs, and to some extent cats, have consequently become a boom industry. Prices have soared in 2020, from hundreds to thousands. 

This in turn has encouraged indiscriminate mass breeding from puppy farmers and ‘greeders’, churning out any old pup to capitalise on this easy cash opportunity.

But boom industries rely on rapid expansion of supply capacities. Breeding simply is not able to meet the surge in demand, so family pets and even working dogs have become the prey of organised crime gangs.

  • Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project to find out if enough is being done to protect our pooches from trafficking. 

The inherent problem is that with current laws, pet theft is sadly a low risk, high reward crime. Theft of any pet is rarely even punished as the current laws recognise pets as a low value possession, similar to a plant pot in your garden, or at most, your mobile phone.

Perpetrators are rarely caught, but if they are, prosecution rates are low, with at most, a minor fine. Steal a handful of family pets a day, some with a resale value of €1,000-plus, thieves are reaping easy rewards of thousands of euro a day. 

Some of the suspected stolen dogs seized by gardaí in Co Limerick earlier this year. Source: An Garda Síochána via Facebook

Traceability a key issue 

So, what can be done? This year the gardaí have created a PULSE code for pet theft. Up until now, pet theft was recorded on their national system as a petty theft of property. Because of this figures demonstrating the rise in pet theft were previously lost amongst missing gnomes and bikes.

The gardaí have responded admirably to the crisis by instigating increased spot checks of vehicles, more raids and have successfully recovered many stolen pets. 

But is it enough? No is the short answer.

Pets are being trafficked across Europe, with minor penalties, if any, when thieves are caught.

One of the key issues is traceability of our pets. Even if microchipped, the system is hugely flawed with issues cross-linking various databases, and frequently out of date contact details.

Pets travel through the ports with little or no checks. Our petrified companions, grabbed from their home, traumatised, lonely and scared are shipped to be sold on to unsuspecting buyers.

The flawed microchip system allows re-registration of chipped dogs into new owner details, making recovery very unlikely. 

20200726_212240 Molly - A female springer spaniel missing from Co Tipperary since July. Source: Bring Molly Home via Facebook

One Government Department should take charge 

Not all stolen pets are shipped overseas and this should become harder once Brexit restrictions come into play.

Pets can be easily sold on in Ireland, due to the lack of enforcement of current legislation regarding the microchipping, licencing and sale of pets.

Ireland has the legal framework to make the resale of your stolen pet very difficult for opportunist thieves, however it is currently almost impossible to enforce.

So what is the solution? Animal related legislation is currently spread across multiple government departments, with little cohesion in execution.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are responsible for the microchip legislation, and the sale or supply of pets. The control of dogs act including licencing and strays, falls to individual local authorities. Dog wardens often don’t scan for a microchip when lose or stray dogs are found.

Welfare groups have long campaigned for all animal related issues to come under one department, or at least be managed by a cohesive working group between the parties concerned. This is desperately needed.

Stronger penalties needed 

Organised gangs require the highest level of criminal intelligence, coordinating large scale operations to recover trafficked pets. But on a day to day level, simple changes can create a system that is much harder to exploit.

Firstly, the penalty for pet theft needs urgent review. Multiple TDs have put forward proposals for increased penalties to be introduced that reflect the emotional and financial value of a pet. This action has strong support, but changing legislation takes time.

Secondly, a robust and interactive identification system is urgently needed, allowing all pets identity to be verified before they change hands. This can be easily addressed with a national microchip/ownership database, which feasibly could be implemented within weeks.

By simply copying all existing microchip details onto a single database, this can ensure that no dog is advertised or sold without first verifying its identity, as is legally required. This new system would also provide a framework for a dog to be accountable to its owner, like a car number plate, or a cows ear tag.

Spot check scans become viable, wardens, gardaí, port authorities, vets, rehoming centres, a simple scan will show instantly if a pet is stolen or missing.

This is how microchips should work, but at present, don’t. The current legislation already in place becomes fit for purpose and enforceable.

This system is currently being considered, and we have launched a petition calling on reform of Irish laws on companion animal theft, sales and microchipping which you can sign here

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Dr Sharon Alston is a vet, qualified in advanced surgery. Keen to see animal welfare improvements across Ireland, Dr Alston set up Animal Welfare and Veterinary Care Ireland CLG and launched the Forever Young Festival, an 80s weekend which helps fund improvements to welfare. 

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About the author:

Dr Sharon Alston  / Animal Welfare and Veterinary Care Ireland

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