Imports of dog and cat fur could be outlawed from the UK if animal welfare groups prove there is a trade in the material, the government has said.
The RSPCA wants a ban on the use of cat fur
Trade Minister Mike O'Brien said he would be "prepared to support a ban" if there was a reliable scientific test to show that a product contains domestic animal fur.
Mr O'Brien said the government was commissioning work to develop such a test - and indications are that one may be ready by this autumn.
The prospect of a ban will be welcomed by animal pressure groups who reacted with shock earlier this year to evidence seen by the BBC which suggests cats are being farmed for their skin in the European Union.
This prompted the Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade (Caft) to call for a Europe-wide ban on the production and trade of cat and dog fur.
But officials in Brussels said it was up to national governments to introduce their own bans.
Now Mr O'Brien said if he is given enough proof of the problem within six months, the government will consider measures to ban imports into the UK.
"Animal welfare groups have rightly raised serious ethical concerns about the use of domestic cat and dog fur," he said.
"I am prepared to support a ban on the import of domestic cat and dog fur if substantive evidence can be provided that these furs are entering the country and provided we can get a test which can show that a product contains domestic cat or dog fur.
Scientific tests show this cuddly toy is made from dog fur
"This will largely depend upon a reliable scientific test not available to date.
"The government is assisting the search for evidence by commissioning work to develop a test. The indications are that one may be in place as early as autumn 2003.
"Once achieved, this test will help animal welfare groups and the government to identify which products available in the UK contain domestic cat and dog fur, if any.
"If clear evidence is produced, I will push to ban these imports into the UK."
Mr O'Brien said there was "clear evidence" that a cat and dog fur industry existed in other countries.
He said most British people would find these products "abhorrent".
The government is writing to animal welfare groups to hear details of their investigations and is asking them to bring forward substantive evidence of the trade.
Earlier this year, the BBC's Tim Franks in Brussels watched a secretly-recorded video in which a salesman showed a buyer two different furs, produced from cats farmed in Belgium and from cats picked up on Belgium streets.
Mr Stevenson has collected cat and dog fur products on sale in Europe
At the time, the UK's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) urged the government to opt for an outright ban on the import of these furs.
A US ban is reported to have led the European market for the products to expand.
So far Italy is the only European country to have banned the trade.
British MEP Struan Stevenson told the BBC that two million cats and dogs are being killed in China alone each year, in order to satisfy demand in Europe.
As evidence of the trade he has collected:
- A blanket made out of four golden retrievers, bought in Copenhagen
- Individual cat skins complete with eye-holes, paws and tails, bought in Barcelona
- A full-length coat made out of up to 42 Alsatian puppies, bought in Berlin
A cuddly toy cat made out of dog fur
Mr Struan said the treatment of animals in fur farms was often inhumane and that he had seen videos of Alsatian dogs being skinned alive.
The Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000 bans the production of fur in England and Wales, including dog and cat fur.
This prohibits the keeping of animals solely or primarily for slaughter for the value of their fur.
But it does not ban the keeping of animals, like rabbits, for the production of meat or for the production of fur or wool which can be clipped or shorn without slaughtering animals in the case of angora rabbits or alpacas.