RSPCA is wasting time pursuing pet owners who have been falsely shamed on social media

Olivia Rudgard
The RSPCA received more than 1.15m calls to its hotline last year - Paul Grover

The RSPCA is wasting time pursuing pet owners who have been falsely shamed on social media, figures suggest. 

Despite receiving more than a 1.15m calls to its helpline in 2016 the charity moved to prosecute in just 1,415 cases.

Prosecutions and convictions have both fallen in the past two years. There were 2,221 convictions in 2016, 1,227 less than in 2014, suggesting that many reports were coming to nothing. 

Dr Emma Creighton, an expert in animal behaviour and welfare at Newcastle University, said that the charity's job was made difficult by people's lack of understanding of what cruelty to animals actually looked like.  

"People are projecting their expectations of what people should do based on animals being like little furry people, and they're not," she said

The RSPCA has 'limited resources' which are squeezed by duplicate reports Credit: Eddie Mulholland

She added that a common example was where older animals were perceived as neglected when actually they were just "doddery". 

"They have to make a judgment call, they have limited resources and there are only a limited number of inspectors," she said. 

In 2013 Richard and Samantha Byrnes, of Tring, Hertfordshire, had their 16-year-old cat Claude taken away and put down after being reported by a neighbour because the cat had a long shaggy coat and did not like to be brushed. 

The charity destroyed the cat, a Turkish Van, even though its owners begged them not to. 

It has since admitted that the case was handled badly and apologised to the family

A spokesman said the charity was frequently receiving multiple complaints about the same case because someone had taken a photo or video of an animal they believed to be in distress and shared it on Twitter or Facebook.  

Dermot Murphy, assistant director of the RSPCA Inspectorate, said: "People are increasingly likely to share images or footage on their social media accounts of animals they believe are not being cared for properly, while many will see material their friends have shared and then contact us about them."

He said the complaints had led to "increased pressure" on officers.

RSPCA Young Photographer Awards Peoples Choice, in pictures

The figures also suggest that the charity is responding to accusations that it has acted overzealously in rehoming animals and prosecuting their owners. 

Allegations of animal cruelty reported to the charity's hotline rose by 35,249 between 2015 and 2016, and 6,600 more investigations took place, but the number of prosecutions fell. 

A spokesman for the charity said it tried to work with owners "wherever possible". 

In total the charity received 1,153,744 calls to its helpline, investigated 149,604 of them and issued 84,725 "advice and improvement notices". 

Regulatory barrister Jonathan Rich has represented hundreds of defendants in cases prosecuted by the RSPCA. He said: "I've seen scenarios where both well-intentioned and malicious reports have caused trouble for a totally innocent owner.  Older animals, or those already under veterinary treatment, are often involved."