Sales of puppies in pet stores could be banned across England if new proposals are brought in by the government.

A consultation has been launched by the environment secretary Michael Gove to explore the possible ban of the puppies as part of a bid to improve animal welfare.

It is hoped that the measures would clamp down on illegal breeding and ensure puppies are only purchased from a breeder or rehousing centre.

Included in the measures, which will come into force later this year, is licensed dog breeders showing puppies alongside their mother before a sale is made, as well as tackling the sale of weak or unhealthy dogs.

Speaking about the new plans, Gove said: "We need to do everything we can to make sure the nation's much loved pets get the right start in life. From banning the sale of underage puppies to tackling the breeding of dogs with severe genetic disorders, we are cracking down on sellers who have a total disregard for their dogs' welfare.

"This is a further step to raise the bar on animal welfare standards. We are also introducing mandatory CCTV in all slaughterhouses and increasing maximum prison sentences tenfold for animal abusers."

The proposals which also involve banning licensed sellers from dealing in puppies and kittens under the age of eight weeks, have been welcomed by animal charities across the country.

RSPCA deputy chief executive Chris Wainwright said: "We are delighted that Defra is considering a ban on third party sales of puppies. We believe that cracking down on unscrupulous traders, who put profit ahead of animal welfare, will provide much-needed protection for prospective pet owners and puppies.

"Together, we hope these moves will offer better protection to puppies and their parents and also reduce the number of families duped by rogue traders in this illegal multi-million-pound trade."

The consultation is open for members of the public to air their views until the 2 May.