You may think your pet is safe running around your fenced-in backyard or alone in the car with the windows cracked, but pet thefts are on the rise. Last Chance for Animals (LCA), the organization behind Pet Theft Awareness Day (Feb. 14), urges pet owners to keep an eye on their four-legged family members.

There are no reliable figures on the number of animals stolen in the U.S. annually because police rarely distinguish between property theft and pet theft. Also, when a pet disappears from a yard, there's often no way to prove the animal didn't just escape.

However, LCA estimates that 2 million pets are stolen each year. The American Kennel Club, which tracks pet thefts through news reports and customers, reported a 31 percent increase in pet thefts from 2012 to 2013.

Why people steal pets

Cats, dogs and other animals are stolen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the theft is financially motivated. Purebred dogs and pets with special skills are the most likely to be targeted, but even mixed breeds can be victims of thefts. Pet flipping — stealing an animal to sell it or cash in a reward for finding it — is common.

Emotionally driven thefts occur when a perpetrator feels that an animal isn't being properly cared for. They often feel justified in taking an animal that's left outside or allowed to run loose.

Unfortunately, pets are also stolen for more grim reasons. Sometimes they're taken to be used as bait animals for dog fights.

They can also be taken to be sold to laboratories for research purposes. Class B dealers licensed by the USDA can sell cats and dogs to research institutions, and they can get these animals from "random sources."

A 2009 report from the National Academies of Sciences found that the USDA "has been unable to completely enforce the Animal Welfare Act in regard to activities of Class B dealers and that there are documented accounts of lost pets that have ended up in research institutions through Class B dealers."

How to keep your pet safe

  • Certain animals are more likely to be stolen than others, so exercise caution if your pet is among them. Cats left outdoors are at high-risk, as are small dogs. In 2011, the most stolen dogs were the Yorkshire terrier, Pomeranian, Maltese and Boston terrier, according to the American Kennel Club. Thieves are also likely to target large-breed dogs like Labrador retrievers, pit bulls and pit bull mixes.
  • Make sure pets are wearing tags at all times, and don't let them off the leash. Because collars and tags are easily removed, you should also have your pet microchipped.
  • Spay or neuter your pets so they'll be less inclined to wander in search of a mate. This also eliminates resale value for breeding purposes.
  • Don't leave your pet alone in the car. Despite other risks, an unattended pet can attract the eye of a thief, and cracked windows can be easily forced down.
  • Avoid leaving your pet unattended in the yard. If you must leave your dog outside, make it difficult to enter by having a tall fence and keeping it locked. Padlocks and chains should be placed high enough so the ground can't be used as leverage for bolt cutters.
  • Don't leave your pet tied outside a business or store. This is common in many urban areas, but such dogs are typically well-behaved and therefore more likely to accept commands from a thief.
  • If a stranger admires your dog, don't answer questions about its breeding, how much it cost or where you live. If a stranger asks you about buying or breeding your pet, say it's been spayed or neutered — even if it hasn't. Also, write down any identifying information, such as the person's name or license plate, and keep a close eye on your pet afterward.
  • Keep recent photos of your pet, including a profile image and a headshot, in an easily accessible place such as your wallet or an email account, so you can distribute it quickly.
  • Always include your pet in emergency preparedness plans. Never leave your pet behind during an evacuation.

Other ways you can help stop pet thievery

Don't buy dogs off the Internet, at flea markets or from roadside vans because you don't know where the animals actually came from.

If you're looking to adopt pet, seek out a reputable breeder or, better yet, adopt an animal from a shelter or rescue group.

If you do buy a purebred animal, ask for registration papers or the American Kennel Club litter registration number.

If you suspect your pet was stolen, call the police immediately and file a report. Then follow these guidelines to try to help track down your pet.

Laura Moss writes about a variety of topics with a focus on animals, science, language and culture. But she mostly writes about cats.

How to avoid pet theft
Pet thefts are more common than you think. Here's what to look out for and a list of tips to keep your furry family member safe.