The RSPCA is launching one of its biggest lobbying campaigns to secure an update to existing animal welfare legislation that would impose a 'duty of care' on all pet owners.
The campaign is designed to coincide with moves by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to consider amending current animal welfare laws, which have not been updated since 1911.
Currently, the law only punishes those who have inflicted "unnecessary cruelty" on animals, but the charity wants amendments to include an extra tier of protection in the form of a welfare offence that would allow the RSPCA inspectors to intervene earlier.
It also wants pet owners to be issued with a set of guidelines that would serve as an instruction manual for anyone buying a domestic pet. The charity believes that a lot of neglect occurs through ignorance of basic care and feeding requirements.
"Under existing legislation, an animal has to actually suffer before its owner can face prosecution," said Jackie Ballard, director general at the RSPCA. "Sadly, this does not always act as a deterrent to cruelty caused by neglect."
More than 50 per cent of British households own a domestic pet, with numbers rising each year.
In a bid to prevent animal suffering, the RSPCA has already introduced a new welfare assessment scheme that provides pet owners failing to take care of their pets with written guidance, but it is currently powerless to impose any disciplinary action on those who fail to correct their behaviour.
Defra is expected to publish a draft of the bill in July, and the charity wants to rally the public behind its proposals to demonstrate the weight of support for greater penalties for animal abuse. It wants the bill to be presented to Parliament in the next Queen's Speech.
The campaign will include a national press advertising campaign, direct-mail drive and a roadshow that will tour the country. The charity will also encourage pet owners to send in paw prints, which it will present to Tony Blair.