Be wary of unscrupulous dog breeders and sellers, animal welfare minister Lord Gardiner has warned.

Many people buy dogs for Christmas and to meet the seasonal rise in demand puppy smugglers and unlicensed sellers import them into the country illegally, neglect their health and welfare and do not properly vaccinate them. This can lead to steep vets’ bills and heartbreak for buyers when the puppies fall ill or in some cases, sadly die.

Lord Gardiner advises that buyers arm themselves with the knowledge they need to buy responsibly and avoid inadvertently fuelling the illegal puppy smuggling trade.

He set out five simple tips to help anyone thinking of committing to a new pet to choose the right animal:

- Always consider a rescue dog in the first instance

- If you are buying a puppy, only buy from reputable breeders and sellers and make sure they’re licensed if buying from a business rather than private seller

- Never buy a puppy that’s younger than eight weeks old

- Check the puppy’s health history: check vaccinations, make sure it’s microchipped and consider asking the seller to complete the ‘Puppy Contract’

- See the puppy interact with its mother

Lord Gardiner added: "If something still doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to walk away and look elsewhere. You should also report suspect breeders and sellers to your local council or Trading Standards."

Earlier this year the government announced a swathe of reforms to the animal licensing system. The reforms will make it illegal to sell puppies younger than eight weeks and require anyone breeding and selling three or more litters a year to apply for a formal licence. Anyone trading commercially in pets online will need to be properly licensed.

John Fishwick, President of the British Veterinary Association, said: "Vets see first-hand the tragic consequences that can result from poorly bred and illegally imported puppies. We’ve heard awful stories of people buying puppies only for their puppy to be dead 24 hours later because of the way it was bred and cared for in its early days.

"Owning a dog is a life-changing commitment and we’d advise anyone thinking about getting a dog to first speak to their local vet about the right breed for them and then use the free online Puppy Contract to ensure they get a happy, healthy and well-socialised puppy."