'Tis the Season for Stressed-Out Pets

Don't be surprised if your dog's bite is worse than his bark at this time of year.

Experts say that pets get particularly persnickety during the harried holiday season, not because they're antsy for scraps from the seasonal feast but because they're on edge.

The frenzy of shopping, decorating and entertaining, as well visitors traipsing through the house, are the primary triggers for holiday pet stress. Trips to see the relatives and separation from vacationing owners can also throw dogs and cats into a tizzy.

"The holiday hubbub results in irritability," said Robert Duffy, executive director of the American Dog Owners Association. "Their whole world is turned around. You get people coming and going that they are not used to, which can lead to extreme stress."

Pets' stress often mirrors that of their owners during the frenetic holiday season.

"Your own anxiety sort of transmits," said Allan Reznik, editor in chief of Dog Fancy and Dog World magazines. "[Pets] are such a barometer for the mood of the household."

Dog owner Suzi Weiss-Fischmann of Los Angeles said she can actually see the stress in her two pooches' eyes this time of year.

"You know when they're not happy. They just give you that sad look," said Weiss-Fischmann. "Between the shopping, the wrapping presents, my two kids and the cooking, I don't have time for the dogs. They look at us like, 'Hello! We're here!'"

But there have been times during the holidays when her Hungarian Vizsla, Gigi, and her toy poodle, Shelby, have shown their anxiety with more than just a forlorn gaze.

"Sometimes they have accidents, like pee-pee," she said. "Or chewing your favorite Gucci shoes. I said, 'Thank God they know designers. Couldn't they go for slippers or something else?' Those things happen when they're stressed out."

Though cats often react by hiding from the chaos, dogs might express their agitation by growling, snapping or even nipping unwelcome intruders.

"If a dog is a little anxious and fearful and a person goes to pet him, he might bite," said Dr. Katherine Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine (search).

"Some bite from fear" and others bite because they're protecting their territory or trying to show dominance," Houpt said.

In fact, Dallas' Animal Services department (search) reported that pet bites spike by about 10 percent during the holidays, according to Reuters news service.

Pet owner and animal lover Steve Dale of Chicago said his two dogs aren't in the business of biting, but his sister's cute Maltese, Edgar, is.

"After spending an evening with Edgar, you should count your fingers," said Dale, a syndicated columnist and host of Animal Planet Radio. "Edgar has issues."

He remembers one holiday incident when his neighbor tried to pet Edgar, despite being warned against it.

"He looks like he wants to be pet," Dale said. "I told our neighbor, 'Don't. Let Edgar come to you.' I turned around and I hear, 'Grrr' and then 'Ouch!' Edgar nailed her as I thought he might."

Houpt said stressed-out dogs generally have their ears back and tail down, and they tend to lick their lips and yawn frequently. Smaller breeds are more likely to be fearful and nip out of nervousness, but guard dog breeds can get skittish and bite intruders too.

Pet gurus offer ways to minimize our furry friends' seasonal angst. For one thing, putting them in another room when a parade of visitors arrives is a good idea, especially for more timid pups and kitties.

"Don't put the Santa Claus outfit on the cat and drag it out," said Houpt.

If Fido and Mittens are left to roam amidst guests, owners should ask visitors to make sure to close the outside door and let the four-legged ones approach them first.

Owners would also be wise to give their pets as much attention as possible, bring them treats and toys and keep them away from human holiday snacks like chocolate that can make them sick. Watching them around the Christmas tree and holiday lights is also advised so they don't get tangled up.

"Pets are part of the family," said Dog Fancy's Reznik. "With a little bit of thought, they won't get overwhelmed and can enjoy the holidays."

Click here to watch Fox News Channel’s video clip about pet gifts.