Some criminals look at rare, expensive, or popular breeds of dogs and cats and see not adorable pets but dollar signs. For owners of those vulnerable animals, precautions and protections are in order.
The public profile of pet theft shot up last month when two of Lady Gaga’s French Bulldogs were kidnapped and her dog walker was shot (he has since recovered). Yet it isn’t only celebrities who have pets stolen, and owners of even moderately valuable animals should take steps to protect them, including considering if and how pet insurance might help in the event your animal is stolen.
Here’s what you need to know about pet theft, including how best to avoid falling victim to it.
Which pets are most often stolen?
As the most ubiquitous pets outside the home, dogs are prime targets for theft. An estimated 2 million dogs are stolen annually, according to the American Kennel Club.
A look at what some dogs costs helps to explain why. While a majority of dog owners in our recent survey on pets and pet ownership reported spending no more than $300 for their pooch, more than one in seven spent at least $1,000, and close to half of those buyers paid more than $2,000.
Pet theft is primarily a commercial crime. Sadie Cornelius, a writer for CanineJournal.com, says it's rare for a dog thief to steal a particular dog breed and keep it for themselves because they’ve always wanted, say, a Yorkshire Terriers. Instead, she says,”money is the driving force. Most dogs are stolen by dog flippers: people who realize the high monetary value of specific breeds and can re-sell them as pets for a significant profit.”
French Bulldogs, like those Lady Gaga owns, are a popular target for dognappers, according to the website IHeartDogs. Their compact size makes them easy to steal, and their popularity -- they’re America’s fourth most popular breed, according to the American Kennel Club -- allows criminals to easily resell the dogs to unsuspecting buyers for as much as $4,000. IHeartDogs.also cites Yorkshire Terriers, Pomeranians, and Maltese as frequent targets for theft, since they can be resold for as much as $3,000.
Since they're more often confined to indoors, cats are less likely to be stolen, Cornelius says. But cat theft isn't unknown, with breeds such as Bengals, Siamese, and Russian Blues being common targets.
Unattended pets are at the highest risk
While pet theft can happen anywhere in the country, Chris DeRose, President of Last Chance for Animals, says that Arkansas, Missouri, the Midwestern states, and California “seem to have higher numbers than others.”
Geography aside, pets are most vulnerable when they’re alone and accessible. Keep in mind that pet theft is “not an opportunistic crime,” DeRose warns. “Thieves often plan the theft ahead of time and ensure that the abduction is fast and discreet, often ensuring that there are no witnesses. We give pet owners the same advice every year: Do not leave a dog or cat anywhere that you would not leave a small, helpless child.”
Cornelius seconds that advice, and adds that “you should always keep a close eye on your dogs while at home, particularly when they're outside.”
Claudine Sievert, a Kansas-based Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and a Veterinary Consultant with CatPet Club, advises pet owners to consider installing a security system with a camera. “Just having a security system will deter burglars and, if there is a break-in, you will be able to get footage of the intruders.”
How petnappings usually unfold
The terms “pet kidnapping” or “dognapping” imply some sort of ransom, but Cornelius says that directly contacting a pet’s owner to ask for money is fairly rare. “Asking for a ransom is too risky, especially in this day in age when security cameras are everywhere.” It's more common for people to sell dogs and cats on the black market (e.g., through Craigslist or newspaper ad) rather than attempting to sell them back to the original owner for a cash reward, she says.
A ransom was not demanded from Lady Gaga, but she did offer a $500,000 reward for the return of her dogs. Such offers are sometimes made, and not only by celebrities, and DeRose says thieves will often abandon a dog “far from the scene of the crime in order to avoid being caught” if no reward is forthcoming.
But that’s still not even the worst outcome for a stolen pet, DeRose says. “In some cases, the dogs are sold to so-called ‘backyard breeders’ who run unlicensed and unregulated breeding operations. Conditions are often dirty and cruel for these dogs who face a short life of perpetual, unhealthy breeding.” DeRose adds that smaller dogs as well as cats are also sometimes sold in order to be used as bait in dog-fighting operations.
How insurance can help
Insuring your pets against theft is far from easy. For one, you’ll probably strike out when it comes to collecting on coverage you already have on your home.
Homeowners insurance often covers theft of possessions, even from outside your home; it will cover your golf clubs if they’re stolen from your car, for example. But you can’t claim the value of a stolen pet on your policy. “Homeowner insurance only provides coverage for liability issues relating to pets,” as when your pet injures another person, says Sievert.
Nor is theft usually covered under a regular pet insurance policy, which insures against medical expenses but not the value of the pet itself. There are, however, a few exceptions. For one, Nationwide policies include coverage of up to $500 for the value of a pet that’s stolen or that merely wanders away and is never seen. The company also reimburses up to the same amount for the expense of advertising a lost pet and offering a reward for its return.
In addition, says vet and consultant Sievert, pet-insurance companies such as Pet Assure, ASPCA, and 24PetWatch might decide “at their discretion to make pet-theft insurance available as an add-on to a policy, she says. “They may also provide it as a stand-alone policy for a special class of the insured, like zoos that are insuring costly animals.”
The cost of such coverage, though, may be priced with high-value animals in mind. While your premiums will vary based based on factors such as the market value of the breed you're looking to insure, Sievert says, it’s not uncommon to be charged $50 a month to insure a dog against theft, and $30 a month for a cat.
How to thwart pet thieves
Aside from avoiding leaving pets unattended and unobserved, and considering using a security camera to watch them outside, several other steps can aid in theft-proofing.
If you have not already had your dog or outdoor cat microchipped, consider doing so; it’s a quick, easy procedure offered by many veterinarians. Then, if the animal finds its way to a shelter, staff there can scan the microchip and contact you. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, "a study of more than 7,700 stray animals at animal shelters showed that dogs without microchips were returned to their owners 21.9% of the time, whereas microchipped dogs were returned to their owners 52.2% of the time."
Microchips are helpful if the worst has already happened. But you know what they say about an ounce of prevention. Sievert also recommends these anti-theft steps for owners of highly valuable dogs:
- Use social media discreetly. Avoid showing-off all your dog's activities, when so much attention is on you and your dog, you both become an easy target.
- Don't allow you and your dog's movements to become predictable.
- Take walks in areas with adequate security.
- Use a unique dog collar for easy means of identification.