It's a big problem that comes in a small package -- the "Chihuahua" problem.

California animal shelters are overflowing with the tiny dogs popularized by such movies as "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "Legally Blonde." But animal control officials hope pet lovers in that state and others will give these Chihuahuas a home for the holidays.

"We probably have more than 20 Chihuahuas in our shelter," said Deb Campbell with San Francisco's Animal Care and Control. "There're just so many of them. And people are bringing them in pretty much daily."

Campbell's shelter isn't the only one in the Golden State with a burgeoning population of abandoned Chihuahuas. "This seems to be consistent with just about all California shelters," Campbell told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Southern California is experiencing the same thing and many shelters in the bay area are overflowing with Chihuahuas."

Earlier this month, San Francisco's Grateful Dogs Rescue group said 31 of the 66 dogs in its foster care program were Chihuahuas or Chihuahua-mixes. The "featured dog" on its Web site today was a Chihuahua-mix named Cecil.

"Must-have dogs"

Campbell and other animal control officials attribute part of the "Chihuahua problem" to movies and advertisements that prominently feature the "Taco Bell" dogs. All that exposure, coupled with pictures of celebrities sporting their Chihuahuas, transformed the breed into trendy must-have dogs.

"A lot of breeders feed into whatever dog is in the media and crank them out to meet demand," Campbell said. "But they went overboard. Backyard breeders also jumped on board and pretty soon, the number of dogs out there had gone past the demand."

The ailing economy has also played a major role in this Chihuahua problem, Campbell said. "The downturn in the economy has affected a lot of people with pets," she said. "Many pets are now being left at shelters, and all shelters are being flooded with animals."

"It's horrible that so many people are being forced to give up their animals," she added. "These are animals that have been loved members of the family. These people are devastated. It's so sad that they can't care for the pets anymore."

Campbell encouraged anyone looking for a Chihuahua or other dog this holiday season to consider getting one from a shelter.

"We've recently had people come in with purebreds that have AKC (American Kennel Club) papers," she said. "Most people think they can only find big, bruising dogs, like Chows and Pit Bulls, at a shelter. They don't think you can find small, lap dogs or purebreds at the shelter. But consumers can go to just about any shelter and find a Chihuahua or a great small dog to adopt."

Twelve of the Chihuahuas in Campbell's shelter were scheduled to be airlifted on Tuesday to New York. But the snow storm that blanketed the East Coast over the weekend delayed those plans.

"We're now looking at flights in early January," Campbell said, adding Virgin America airlines agreed to transport the dogs free of charge. But why fly the dogs across the country to New York?

"While we are overflowing with Chihuahuas in California, there seems to be a lack of them on the East Coast," Campbell said.

Earlier this month, she and other humane workers in California asked the public to help them with the unprecedented number of Chihuahuas in their shelters. They had one simple wish: Find these dogs a home for the holidays.

"We adopted six right after our press conference and then five more about a week later," Campbell said. "We then heard from shelters on the East Coast that wanted the dogs."

Campbell's shelter is now working with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York to place many of the Chihuahuas.

"After our appeal, [the New York ASPCA was] overwhelmed with calls from people wanting our dogs," Campbell said. "So there's definitely a need there."

Puppy mill problems

Getting a dog at a shelter, instead of a pet store or Web site, is also a message the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is spreading this holiday season.

Consumers who buy a dog from a pet store or online vendor, the animal rights organization warned, could unknowingly fuel the billion-dollar puppy-mill industry.

Puppy mills are mass commercial breeding operations that churn out two to four million puppies each year, the HSUS said. Those puppies, they said, are raised in deplorable conditions and often have health problems, genetic defects, and behavioral issues.

"The Humane Society of the United States braces itself every year for the upsetting calls that come in right after the holidays," says Stephanie Shain, senior director of the puppy mills campaign for HSUS. People call about sick or dying puppies who were purchased for the holidays.

"We encourage people who want a new pet to first consider adoption from local shelters and rescue groups, which are filled with healthy, loving dogs who need a family of their own this holiday."

During a November 2008 interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, Shain predicted that puppy mills would soon start churning out Chihuahuas. Her comments came shortly after the release of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

"The breed all depends on what public wants," she told us. "It's driven by consumers' demands. And we have concerns about Chihuahua right now. When any breed gets that much media attention, there is a huge surge in demand and people wanting to capitalize on that demand."

Campbell and other California shelters are now dealing with the consequences of unscrupulous breeders who exploited the demand for Chihuahuas and cranked out too many of the little dogs for their financial gain.

But the shelters are commitmented to finding good homes for all the Chihuahuas and the other dogs and cats in their facilities.

"These Chihuahuas are still available for adoption and consumers can come to our shelter and get one or any of our other great dogs," Campbell said. "And we definitely have more cats than dogs, some of which are purebred."

"My message to pet owners looking for a dog this holiday season is to never be afraid to go to a shelter," she added. "It will make an amazing difference in your life and in the life of an animal."

"They're losing money left and right"

Companies such as the Hartz Mountain Corporation are stepping forward to help animal shelters weather the economic climate.

In July, Hartz pledged to donate more than three million dollars in pet supplies and treats to animal shelters and food banks across the U.S. and Canada. The company is also soliciting help from pet lovers to nominate local animal shelters and food banks for donations of pet supplies.

"The economic downturn has had a profound effect on the financial welfare of families, many of whom have been forced to surrender their beloved pets to shelters," said Bob Shipley, Hartz Senior Vice President of Customer Relations Development. "Yet shelters report that donations are down by as much as 30 percent."

"We hope that our Hartz Shelter Program will help shelters feed and care for abandoned animals and enable at-risk families to keep their pets," Shipley added.

Campbell applauds Hartz' commitment to help shelters nationwide. "Shelters are struggling right now," she said. "Contributions are down. They're losing money left and right."