Stealing the family dog or cat in New York could soon send a pet thief to prison.
A bill under consideration by New York lawmakers would send someone convicted of stealing a pet, including mutts and stray cats that found a home, to prison for up to four years for felony grand larceny.
"This treats pets as the family members they are and sends a powerful message to the community," said Bill Ketzer, northeastern senior legislative director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals.
The measure passed in the Senate on Wednesday and now goes to the Assembly for its consideration.
The sponsors say the punishment for the crime — now a misdemeanor — must be toughened to meet the severity of the crime, which includes stealing dogs as bait for fighting dogs and use in research as well as the use of pets as pawns in domestic violence. The measure would likely be the toughest of its kind in the nation.
The American Kennel Club, which has tracked pet thefts since 2007, found an increase to 432 cases in 2011, up from 255 the previous year.
Lisa Peterson, speaking for the AKC, said pets are stolen to avoid the cost of buying them and to sell from vans along roadsides and in open-air markets, while some are held for ransom or for torture.
"The reasons are as varied as the type of dogs that are stolen, but they are all clearly economic," Peterson said.
She said California and Delaware recently enacted laws to curb roadside sales of pets.
The ASPCA, the National Conference of Legislatures and the Animal Legal and Historical Web Center at the Michigan State University College of Law didn't immediately know Wednesday of any state that has gone as far as the New York proposal.
No other bills similar to New York's are pending nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A bill in Texas that would have carried a sentence of two years in prison failed in 2009, according to the AKC.
Professor David Favre, who specializes in property and animal law at Michigan State's law school, said interest in enhancing the status and protections for pets over other animals, as in the New York bill, is a recent and growing trend.
The sponsors of the bill — state Sen. Carl Marcellino, a Long Island Republican, and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat — said the crime is too low a priority for police as a misdemeanor.
"Cops don't have the time," Marcellino said in an interview on the Senate floor. "This is a growing problem."
"This doesn't generate a lot of attention, so by jacking it up to an E-felony, we want their attention," Marcellino said.