Police have released the first description of a suspected serial cat killer linked to the mutilation of hundreds of pets. The attacker, who was initially referred to as a the "Croydon Cat Killer" after the killings were first reported in south London, is thought to have been at large since 2015.

The unidentified killer has been blamed for the deaths of around 250 cats – as well as dozens of foxes and rabbits – across London and as far afield as Manchester, Birmingham and the Isle of Wight. Many of the pets were found decapitated and with their tails chopped off.

South Norwood Animal Rescue and Liberty (Snarl), which has been documenting the gruesome animal killings, this week released the first description of the man thought to be responsible.

It comes after Surrey Police officers spoke to witnesses of three recent cat killings in Caterham. He is described as white, aged in his 40s, with short brown hair, between 5'8" and 5'11" tall, of average build, and possibly with acne scarring to his face.

He is said to be dressed in dark clothing, sometimes carrying a torch or wearing a headlamp, and has been seen trying to coax cats with a toy, food, and "kissing noises".

Snarl described the development as a "major breakthrough", adding that it matched similar descriptions from other areas where killings are thought to have taken place. The animal rescue charity has urged the public not to confront anyone matching the description, but to instead call the police.

The group, along with animal rights groups Peta and Outpaced, is also offering a £10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. Snarl said distinguishing marks on the corpses and post-mortem findings led it to believe there is only one attacker.

The group is so concerned by the death toll that it has advised pet owners to keep their cats indoors at night and during the day. Another unsolved case this month in Northampton saw a cat's head, limbs and ears severed before being sent back to its owners in a bag. Days earlier another cat in the same area had been set on fire.

A week earlier, the head of a black and white cat had been found in the Bromley area of London.