Families are being warned not to fall prey to illegal puppy smugglers as online searches for dogs skyrocket in the run up to Christmas.

According to a survey carried out by animal welfare charity RSPCA, more than one in 10 people are planning to buy a puppy this year - with lockdown driving demand for household pets.

Government figures show the number of legal licences issued for imported puppies between May and September this year rose by 87pc compared to 2019 - up from 14,075 licences to 26,461.

But with this, there is the inevitable increase in "underground selling" by more "unscrupulous" methods, they say.

In Norfolk and Suffolk alone, the charity received 13 reports relating to the "illegal puppy trade" between March 23 and October 31, and 575 across England and Wales as a whole.

This involved dogs being bred in "appalling conditions" on mass-scale puppy farms, which puts animals at risk of long-term health conditions.

In October, in one particularly alarming incident, there were reports of imported puppies being sold from the back of a van at a motorway service station in Surrey.

In a statement, the charity said: "Unscrupulous breeders see puppies simply as quick cash and will do all they can to maximise the profit margins by keeping them in poor conditions, feeding them low-quality food and avoiding spending money on vet care."

French bulldog Dobby is just one dog who was trafficked into the UK from a Lithuanian puppy farm after being advertised online.

A major operation costing £3,000 was needed to widen his nostrils following severe breathing problems, and staff had to roll his food into small balls to hand feed him every two hours.

He was weak, underweight, and had ear infections and a painful eye infection known as "cherry eye".

Though he was adopted by a member of the RSPCA's team, it's likely he will face health issues for the rest of his life.

Puppy Keith, meanwhile, was just six-weeks-old when he was found dumped in a cardboard box. The charity believes his breeder abandoned him following a deformity to his paw which meant he couldn't put any weight on his front legs.

In a statement, the charity said: "We'd urge anyone thinking of getting a puppy during the festive rush to be extremely careful when choosing a breeder. Or, even better, why not adopt one instead?"