London (AFP) -
When six of Sarah's dogs were stolen in late December, she was left reeling. But she was not alone, as increasing numbers of pet owners have experienced similar losses across Britain.
'I can't name one feeling because there was too many -- I was basically shocked, upset, frightened because of how this happened,' the 35-year-old, who declined to give her surname, told AFP.
'(I was) obviously really, really, really worried for the dogs and it's hard to go on with daily life because you feel guilty.'
The dogs disappeared after thieves broke into the outhouse where they slept overnight at the family's property in a quiet village near the town of Port Talbot in south Wales.
Five remain missing but a female English springer spaniel stolen was recently found by a passerby, and a vet was able to trace her back to Sarah.
She had a nasty wound where the perpetrators had unsuccessfully tried to remove her microchip.
'Seeing the injuries that my spaniel has got, (I'm) even more worried for the dogs now,' said Sarah.
- 'Huge demand' -
Britain has seen an explosion in the number of dog thefts since the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns started early last year, as demand for pets has surged.
'It's just as growing a pandemic as Covid itself,' said Wayne May, from DogLost, an organisation that tries to reunite missing canines with their owners using its online database.
'I've been doing this for 30 years now and 2020 was the worst ever year,' he added, noting there had been an estimated 250 percent rise in dog thefts since last March.
Already known as a nation of dog lovers, a burgeoning number of Britons have been looking for four-legged companions during the virus lockdowns to help overcome loneliness and anxiety.
Prices for puppies in particular but also older dogs have skyrocketed, attracting greedy breeders -- and the interest of criminals.
Figures from Pets4Homes, an online marketplace for sales and adoptions, showed the average price asked in around 150,000 listings from March to September was £1,883 ($2,575, 2,149 euros).
The average price during the same period the previous year was less than half that, at £888.
Some puppies of popular breeds, such as spaniels, bulldogs, pugs and poodle crossbreeds, can be listed for more than £4,000.
Meanwhile, adoptions have also risen.
The 'pets' section of the website of the animal welfare charity the RSPCA attracted 40 million views in the final nine months of 2020 -- an increase of 13 million compared to 2019.
'Because there's been such a huge demand for puppies especially, we've seen people start to try and meet this demand by acting illegally and illicitly,' said Sam Gaines, head of companion animals at the RSPCA.
- 'Lucrative' -
He added that the extra demand had led to a rise in puppies being brought in from abroad.
'We do have huge concerns about how puppies are bred and reared from outside of the UK, and the really long journeys that they need to endure to actually get to this country,' Gaines told AFP.
Organised criminal groups are now taking a growing interest in this area, alongside less coordinated thieves long active in more opportunistic dog stealing, according to DogLost's May.
'Prior to the pandemic... it was opportunity theft, a very very small percentage was criminal gangs or specifically targeted thefts,' he explained.
'That all changed last year... we're now getting organised gangs and groups, stealing your dogs to breed from or to look for a reward or a ransom.'
May believes only tougher sanctions can discourage the growing number of thieves.
'It's more lucrative now to be a dog thief in the United Kingdom than to be a drug dealer, because the punishment doesn't fit the crime,' he added, noting punishment for stealing a dog is a paltry £200-250 fine.
'The criminal gangs are willing to take that risk for such a paltry sum.'