Lost dog sign

Every year on Feb. 14 people celebrate Valentine’s Day with their loved ones, both human and animal. For animal lovers, the day holds extra significance by highlighting an important issue through Pet Theft Awareness Day.

In 2012, 458 dogs were stolen across the country, according to numbers tracked by the American Kennel Club’s National Pet Theft Database. That’s a significant increase from 2010, when 255 dogs were stolen.

“People are stunned when [pet theft] happens to them,” says Kirsten Theisen, director of pet care issues for The Humane Society of the United States. “You never think it’s going to happen to you, but it takes only a minute of misstep to have something go wrong.”

According to Theisen, pet theft is more common than people think, and pet owners should be aware that it can occur at any time. There are a number of steps you can take to decrease your chances of having a pet stolen. Here are Theisen’s top five tips for protecting your pet from theft.

1. Never Leave a Pet Unattended

Be aware of the location of your pet at all times and never leave it alone outdoors. Even with dogs who love to get out and run in the yard, you need to make sure they stay in visual range.

“The No. 1 deterrence [to thieves] is seeing someone,” Theisen says. “No one would challenge the owner right there.”

2. Build Secure Fences Around Your Yard

If you let your pet outside, then having a secure fence is crucial. Even with a secure fence, dogs should not be left out for extended periods of time. Just because your dog hasn’t dug a hole before doesn’t mean he won’t try when something interesting shows up on the other side of the fence.

3. Never Leave Your Pet Alone in the Car

A common way for pets to disappear is not through malicious theft, but through good intentions. If you leave your pet alone in the car, even if only for a few minutes, a passer-by may believe he or she is acting in the best interest of the animal by removing it.

4. Form a Pet Community in Your Neighborhood

It’s important to know the pets in your area and which neighbors own them. Build good relationships with the other pet owners so that everyone is paying attention to what’s going on with the community’s pets.

“If you know the dogs and their owners and you see some stranger with a neighbor’s dog, that’s a red flag,” Theisen says. “A neighborhood with its eyes open is less likely to be targeted.”

5. Make Sure Pets Have ID at All Times

Your pet should always be wearing its ID tag, even while on your property. Also consider microchipping your pet. A microchip is a reliable form of ID for your pet because it can’t get lost or fade with time, and it can help you establish proof of ownership. “A microchip is an almost unarguable way to prove that animal belongs to you,” Theisen says.

Theisen also stresses the importance of having a recent photo of your pet. An up-to-date photo can also serve as proof you’re the owner.

Steps Toward Recovery

If you realize your pet has been stolen, what should you do? The first step is to contact local police and animal control. Reach out to animal shelters that may have received your pet if it was abandoned by the thief and ask them to keep an eye out for your animal.

Once official reports are filed, it’s time to mobilize your network. Go door to door, hang up fliers and post on your Facebook page that your pet is missing. Make sure you know your pet’s ID tag and microchip information and have a current photograph handy so if you do get a call, you can show up and immediately prove the animal is yours.

For more tips on how you can protect your pet against theft, visit The Humane Society of the United States or the American Kennel Club Companion Animal Recovery website.