A Swadlincote vet is urging people not to keep feeding stray cats after the number of kitties stolen in the UK jumped by 40 per cent in two years.
According to research conducted by Direct Line Pet Insurance, 261 cats were reported stolen in 2016, up from 181 in 2014.
The highest number of thefts took place in Greater London where 48 were recorded, followed by Kent and West Yorkshire, which had 26 and 24 thefts respectively.
The data, which Direct Line collected from UK police forces, showed that 18 per cent of stolen cats were recovered by officers.
However, additional research demonstrated the true number of cat thefts could be much higher, with as many as 360,000 adults believing that a cat was stolen from their care in the past 12 months.
Kelly Freezer, head vet at Bright Side Vets in West Street, said the surgery is not aware of cat thefts being that common but that cats visit other "cat friendly people", who might feed them or have a cat flap that allows the cat to go in and get comfortable in a different home.
She said: "It may not be intentional but the person feeding the cat might think the cat is a stray and encourage it to stay, when the reality is the cat is just looking for food or a comfy place to sleep.
"For this reason we would discourage people from feeding a cat that isn't theirs, not only could it encourage them to continue to stray from home but they could have specific dietary requirements or medication that needs to be considered.
"If you come across a cat in your garden looking for food, always check its collar as it might have details of the owner on it or even a warning "do not feed".
"If the cat consistently comes into your garden and you are worried, bring it down to the vets where we can scan it for a microchip or help to reunite it with its owner using social media."
Kelly also said that microchipping has proved "critical" in enabling the vets to reunite pets with their owners.
She said: "In cats it is not a legal requirement but we still think it is critical, which is why we include it in our kitten starter packs as standard. To reduce the likelihood of straying owners should get their cats neutered as this helps them not to wander off because of their natural urges.
"Finally, we would encourage people that have sheds, garages and vans to check them before locking them up as we have seen quite a few strays seek warmth and shelter in garages and sheds and then be found days or even weeks later.
"One cat was found locally after getting trapped in a van after hiding from the rain in Liverpool – it was only because of the microchip that we were able to find its original home."
Of the breeds recorded, the Bengal and Domestic shorthair were taken most frequently, followed by the Russian Blue and Siamese.
The distinctive characteristics of Bengals, Russian Blues and Siamese pedigrees means kittens can fetch more than £350, making them prime targets for potential thieves.
Head of Pet Insurance at Direct Line, Prit Powar, said: "If an owner believes their cat is missing, they should first check the immediate vicinity such as in neighbouring gardens or garages as well as asking local people if they have seen it. If their cat is still missing, owners should contact their local animal warden."
Mr Powar also urged cat owners to "make it as difficult for would-be thieves as possible" by keeping their details on a microchip database, advertising when the animal is neutered, and quickly spreading the news of a suspected theft.