LONDON (AP) - A chip for Spot? In a country where guns are tightly controlled and even carrying a kitchen knife can bring prison time, some thugs use dogs to menace their victims. Now the British government is proposing that dog owners be forced to get microchips and take out insurance for their pets.
Postal workers were delighted by the proposal announced Tuesday. But opponents complained it would impose a financial penalty on innocent pet owners - while criminals with violent animals would simply shirk the law.
The plan risks "penalizing millions of law-abiding dog owners with the blunt instrument of a dog tax," warned opposition lawmaker Nick Herbert.
Home Office Secretary Alan Johnson said there was "no doubt that some people breed and keep dogs for the sole purpose of intimidating others."
"It is this sort of behavior that we are determined to stop," he told reporters. Use of microchips would help trace the owners of dogs involved in attacks, while insurance would mean that victims of dog attacks are compensated for their injuries, he said.
Hospital admissions and court cases involving dangerous dogs have been on the rise in Britain, a nation whose canine population numbers 8 million. In London, court cases have climbed, from 35 in 2002-2003 to 719 in 2008-2009, according to the Metropolitan Police.
Dog fighting complaints have also soared tenfold since 2004, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which reported 284 cases in 2008. Some 6,000 postal workers are bitten each year.
Dog attacks that have killed at least five children since 2006 have also kept the issue in the headlines. Last year, a 4-year-old was mauled to death by a pit bull at his grandmother's house in northern England and a 3-month-old was killed by a Staffordshire bull terrier and a Jack Russell at his grandmother's home in South Wales.
Ryan O'Meara, chief editor of K9 Magazine, said the government's plan would not solve the problem of dangerous dogs attacking humans.
"There is nothing in this that is preventative," he said. "If you put a chip in a dangerous dog, the bite will hurt you just as much."
"The focus should be on education, and stopping this at the source - the breeders who supply dangerous dogs," he said.
Training for owners is essential, said O'Meara, noting that Switzerland requires prospective dog owners to pass a test. "The country says, if you want to own an animal, we will force you to be responsible," he said.
Still, Britain's proposal was largely welcomed by animal welfare groups. The RSPCA said it has long supported microchips - primarily as a means of reuniting lost pets with their owners. The devices, about the size of a grain of rice, are painlessly inserted between a dog's shoulder blades and details about the owner are easily readable by scanners.
While microchips run between $15 (10 pounds) and $52 (35 pounds), insurance is far pricier - and could cost pet owners hundreds of dollars a year, especially for high-risk breeds.
Most pet insurers offer third-party liability insurance wrapped into larger plans that also cover vet fees and emergency care. Petplan, Britain's largest pet insurer, said that for a Labrador in southeast England, coverage costs $34 (23 pounds) a month and would be pricier in London.
Sanctions imposed on those who refuse to comply weren't spelled out. It was also unclear when, or even if, the proposed legislation would become law. It must undergo a consultation period - typically 12 weeks - which means it is unlikely to reach Parliament before Britain's general election, which must be called by June 3.
A host of European countries - including Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Croatia, Italy and Portugal - have introduced mandatory microchips in recent years. Mandatory dog insurance is in place in parts of Switzerland and Germany.
Many Londoners supported the idea of microchips for their pets.
"You can find them easier if they get lost," said Claire Stringer, 35, a professional dog-walker looking after miniature schnauzer Bibi, who has a microchip.
She also supported making people take out insurance against dogs attacking people or other animals.
"I've heard too many dog horror stories where some poor dog has been savaged by a pit bull or a Staff - dogs that don't like other dogs."
Fiona Terry, an actor and interior designer carrying bichon frise Pico, also supported microchips.
"Why not? It doesn't hurt them and it means you can find them if they get lost or stolen," she said. "If you care about your dog, you want to know where they are."
She said the problem wasn't with certain breeds of "dangerous" dog, but with the way the animals were raised.
Still, even fluffy Pico could be a threat, she said.
"I always tell people, don't touch him, because his first instinct is to protect me. He looks cute, but he is still a dog."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)