OCALA, Fla. - It can happen in an instant. One second your loving pet is right there with you, and the next-- gone, possibly forever.
The SPCA of Central Florida said one in three pets go missing at some point in their lives. But in some cases, they may not be missing-- they may have been stolen, and resold to the highest bidder.
It's called pet flipping, a problem that's sweeping the nation. It's actually risen nearly 30 percent in the past year, according to the American Kennel Club. The worst part is, it's almost impossible to tell if it's actually happened to your pet.
Take Misty Allen, for example. Her 8-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, Fergie, was stolen outside her home in Ocala about a year ago.
"It's like the perfect storm, it's like everything that could have gone wrong at that particular moment, did," said Allen.
Fergie is an unusually and particularly small teacup Yorkie, at only about three pounds. She said Fergie got under the gate while Allen's elderly aunt was watching the dogs one day, and made it all the way to the road. By the time her aunt got to the front of the house, Fergie was gone.
Later, after posting flyers in her neighborhood, Allen got a call from two men who said they saw Fergie, and that she had been taken by a large man in a pickup truck. They said they had actually stopped their car and picked Fergie up, but before they could figure out who she belonged to, the man stopped his truck, demanded the dog, and drove away with a woman and kids in his car.
So Allen said she did what any responsible pet owner would do.
"My microchip has got my current address, my phone number and she was reported stolen," she said. "And in my search, I immediately called every vet I could find in Ccala, and sent flyers. I also called every groomer I could find and sent them flyers and told them to be on the lookout."
Despite those efforts, and missing flyers posted on Craigslist and Facebook, no luck.
Allen said not knowing what happened to Fergie is the worst part of all.
"She could be being mistreated, who knows and that's very upsetting to me more than anything," she said. "I would just like to know how she is."
But the reality is, with a such a valuable breed, she may never know.
The top 5 stolen breeds are French Bulldogs, Labrador Retrievers, Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, with Yorkies topping the list. The AKC also lists Pit Bulls as one of the most stolen breeds.
Still, law enforcement agencies all across Central Florida told Local 6 pet flipping is very difficult to track. In fact, Local 6 was only able to find three other cases this year that were properly documented with police.
In some cases, the animals may have legitimately gone missing, been found, and instead of taking the steps to return the animal to the proper owner, the finder may just sell the animal.
It's also a potential danger if you're giving away your pet for free. Viewers told Local 6 they have either given away their pet, or asked someone to hold their pet for them, only to turn around and find the animal listed for sale on Craigslist or other classified ad websites. They said in some cases, they were contacted by a woman who said she had children and wanted a family pet, only to find it was all a scam.
But unless you save the website ad or know who has possession of the pet and have proof the animal is really yours, it's difficult to prove a crime has happened.
Another thing to keep in mind, they're not just being taken for cash. SPCA officials said they could be potential bait dogs for dog fight rings.
"In order for a dog to fight, they have to be taught to fight and what happens is, this is where people need to be careful if they're giving away pets in the newspaper free or you're giving your dog free," said Kerri Burns, Executive Director of the SPCA of Central Florida. "Those in the dog fight rings will use bait dogs and cats to taunt and tease a fight dog and usually a bait dog does not make it out alive. Bait dogs usually have their muzzles taped, their teeth are just filed down completely, they have no way to fight back. So it could be your loving pet, your poodle, and someone steals it, and you may never get it back if it becomes a bait dog."
So how can you protect your loving furry friend?
But Dr. Heather Scheuerman, also with the SPCA, said the most important thing you can do to protect your pet is to make sure they're microchipped-- and keep your contact information current.
"Studies show that one in three pets will go missing in their lifetime," said Dr. Scheuerman. "Without a microchip, 90% of them will never find their home. With a microchip, that number is increased to 73% that will find their owner again."
It's a quick, easy, and relatively painless and cheap procedure, usually ranging from between $35 to $60.
"The microchip itself is inserted with a small needle," said Dr. Scheuerman. "It goes right between the shoulder blades, because it's an area with relatively few nerves."
Dr. Scheuerman said that theives can't just change the microchip information to match their own, because a third-party company keeps it-- which requires personal information in order to access the account.
Allen said that may be so, but said all pet owners need to be vigilant about asking their vets to routinely scan new animals they see at their practices. She said in her search for Fergie, she found most vets don't even check microchips, unless they're specifically asked to.
"If you're gonna put chips in dogs, you need to be committed to checking them, otherwise they're worthless," said Allen. "Especially in these little dogs, because they don't end up at the pound, not very often. They're stolen or lost and somebody finds them and they're resold."
But she hasn't given up hope that one day she will be reunited with Fergie.
"I feel like if I forget it, I'm just giving up on her," she said. "You hear about dogs being found years later, so I just keep hoping maybe one day, somebody will find her."
Find more ways you protect your pet here.
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