DOG owners are being warned to be on their guard after Hampshire and the New Forest was identified as a hotspot for canine thefts.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) wants members to be extra vigilant following news that the county is in the top six in the country for dog thefts in the last year.

Figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request reveal that 55 dogs were reported stolen in 2013.

The CLA says animals can often be sold quickly and not easily traced.

CLA south east director Robin Edwards said: “Dogs are targeted by thieves because they can easily make money selling them on, often for breeding or, most distressingly, for fighting.”

DogLost, a website which reunites missing dogs with owners, says it is a growing problem in Hampshire, which reflects the national situation.

Spokesman Nik Oakley said kennels and farms in rural areas are being targeted in particular for valuable gundogs and labradors, cocker spaniels and springer spaniels. But in urban areas thieves are focused on designer breeds, with a huge upsurge in thefts of chihuahuas, pugs and mini French bulldogs, she said.

Ms Oakley said it is believed the M3 and M4 motorways are being used as getaway routes for people coming into the county to take dogs.

DogLost dealt with 2,500 to 3,000 dogs that it knows were stolen nationally last year, 15 per cent up on the previous year.

She said that although some acts are random and spontaneous, these thefts are becoming increasingly organised.

There have been incidents where dogs have literally been snatched in the street or houses burgled where only the dog was taken.

In 2012 dog thieves were targeting high-value breeds in the New Forest areas and even breaking into people’s homes to get the dogs for breeding, hunting and to sell them on, or even use them for fighting.

Ms Oakley said the thefts are financially driven – highly trained gundogs can be worth £2,000.

“Dog theft ten years ago was about someone getting a quick £50,” said Ms Oakley.

“Now there’s a much greater awareness of the value of certain breeds of dogs and it’s so well-known that very little action is ever taken.

“Although a gundog is a working dog and has to earn its keep, the majority are still well loved pets as well. People are absolutely heartbroken.”

Ms Oakley said at the moment dogs are classed as property, rather than a family member, and thieves are sentenced accordingly, but the organisation is calling for heavier punishments.

DogLost gives owners the following advice: Do not tie up your dog outside a shop, even if you are making a quick visit.

Do not leave your dog in the car or in the garden for any period of time.

Dogs should be microchipped and possibly even tattooed.

If you think you are being followed, vary where you walk and the time.

Kennels should review security and call in a crime prevention officer.