BRADENTON -- Gigi Hazelzet loves Christmas and watching her 4-year-old Lulu unwrap her presents under the tree.First she sniffs and then attacks, ripping through gift wrapping and bows to find her new treat.
Lulu Mia is one lucky, 7-pound Yorkie. Hazelzet estimates she's spent hundreds of dollars each holiday on dresses, jewelry and toys for her pet.
One of the family's Christmas traditions is dressing Lulu up on Christmas Eve in a new dress and taking her to lunch at St. Armands Circle in her stroller.
"My inheritance is in that dog," Hazelzet laughed.
This year, pet owners like Hazelzet are expected to spend $5 billion on gifts for their dogs and cats, according to the American Pet Owner's Association.
Surveys show eight out of 10 pet owners plan to buy gifts for their pets and nearly 63 percent plan on including their animal in their holiday cards.
Pets are treated as part of the family and also part of holiday celebrations. In fact, the Christmas season is the busiest revenue maker for local specialty pet retailers.
"I've had people in November and October asking for holiday stuff," said Alyssa Frazier, store manager for Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming, 8314 Market St., Lakewood Ranch.
The shop has a huge treat table in front of the store with bone-shaped cookies covered with "dog" frosting that can be personalized with a dog's name on them.
Woof Gang also sells toys and shirts for Hanukkah.
"We do that because we had a demand for it," Frazier said.
Customers buy everything from $25 holiday dresses to $8 holiday treats.
This year the shop also had a portrait artist doing renderings of dogs and cats. In the past, owners could get pictures of their pets with Santa.
Kathy Pontillo, owner of Bone Appetite on University Parkway, said customers like to spend money on their pets, many who treat them as if they were children.
"I have one customer who has six dogs and she dresses the dogs in holiday clothes every day" during the Christmas holidays, Pontillo said. "We're all kind of crazy."
Along with fresh-baked cookies, Bone Appetite sells treats and toys, clothing, beds, harnesses and collars.
"People are buying for their pets and others like their parents' dog or the dogs in the neighborhood," she said.
Pontillo, owner of four dogs, admits she is obsessed with her furry family.
On Christmas each dog has its own stocking and opens their own gifts under the tree."But I can't fill them (stockings) until ChristmasEve because they would pull them off the mantle," she said.
Pontillo believes her brood know what's going on."I think they know it's Christmas, they know it is something different," she said.
Pet owners also get treats during the holidays.
Perks 4 Pets, 6745 Manatee Ave W., sell gifts like key chains, picture frames, cards and even cutting boards that are breed specific.
Elf and Santa hats for dogs are big sellers this year, said co-owner Ken Woods, along with jingle bell collars and complete Santa suits.
"There are quite a few Christmas festivals around here and people dress their dogs up for them," he said.
For people who shake their heads and wonder why all the ruckus over pets, Frazier has a good answer. "If you aren't a dog person, you can't understand," she said.