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Local animal shelters take creative steps to avoid overcrowding

Thursday - 6/20/2013, 10:04am  ET

AnimalShelter.jpg
Experts say spaying and neutering is the only way we will begin to see a long-term decrease in the homeless pet population. (Thinkstock)

Katy Nelson, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - In the 1980s, more than 20 million dogs and cats were euthanized each year in shelters around the country.

And while that number is much lower today (around 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized each year), a large number of animals are still dying unnecessarily.

A change in the mindset of veterinarians and pet owners, in regard to spaying and neutering their pets, is partially to credit for this dramatic reduction over the last 30 years.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and chief executive officer of the Washington Humane Society, says that spaying and neutering owned animals directly impacts the number of animals coming into shelters.

"Spaying and neutering is the only way we will begin to see a long-term decrease in the homeless pet population and slow the number of animals coming in to shelters," LaFontaine says.

Another reason for the drop in shelter euthanasia is the growing intolerance for "outside cats and dogs." Outdoor pets add to pet overpopulation, and statistics show they also face a significantly shortened lifespan.

Despite this seemingly good news, Animal Welfare League of Arlington CEO Neil Trent says that his shelter is currently running at maximum capacity. He attributes this to "kitten season" being in full swing.

"Kitten season" is the term used regionally for the two times each year that feral cats have their litters, resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of kittens ending up at shelters in the spring and late summer.

"We pride ourselves on being an open admission shelter, but at this point in time, we're trying to avoid an overcrowding issue," Trent says. "What this means is if there are animals that come in from other areas, we may have to start turning them away so we can focus on the animals of Arlington County's needs."

What happens in an overcrowding situation in a shelter?

Stress increases -- and so does the likelihood and threat of disease. Shelters around the country struggle to maintain the delicate balance between taking in all the animals they can to save lives and trying to healthily take care of the animals already living there.

And Arlington is not the only area shelter feeling the pinch.

"Right now at Washington Humane Society, we, too, are housing more cats than we truly have space for," LaFontaine says.

To address this concerning situation, these animal-loving organizations are getting creative.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington is offering a "three-for- three" incentive. Any adult cat, 3 years old and over, can be adopted for a price of the customer's choice. And the cat comes with three very important things: all necessary vaccinations, a set of ID tags and an already spayed or neutered pet.

The Washington Humane Society is offering a $25 adoption fee for the entire month of June, and the shelter always offers a two-for-one deal with cat adoptions.

If you're not looking to add to your home right now, there's still something you can do for shelter animals.

"First, make sure that all of your pets are spayed and neutered. Second, if you know of any neighborhood strays, let your local shelter know so they can get to them immediately, before they start having offspring of their own. And finally, consider becoming a foster care provider," Trent says.

Foster parents open their homes to care for pets that are either too young, too old or are generally not thriving in a shelter environment. Foster providers are allowed to choose what type of pets they'll foster, how many pets they'll foster and the length of time for which they will foster.

All shelters that run these programs pay for any expenses the foster care providers incur, including supplies and healthcare, so that participation in the program does not become a financial strain.

Director of Communications and Outreach at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria Patrick Cole says his organization's growing foster care network has allowed it to avoid the overcrowding situation.

"We've seen a large number of kittens and puppies this spring, but we've been able to care for more animals this year, without putting an insurmountable strain on our resources, by utilizing these foster parents," Cole says.

To learn more about all of these area shelters, their adoption and foster programs and how you can help, visit the websites listed below.

Dr. Katy Nelson is an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va. Tune in to "The Pet Show" with Dr. Katy every Saturday at 11 a.m. on Washington D.C.'s News Channel 8, and listen on WTOP for her Dr. Pawz segments every two weeks. Have questions for Dr. Katy? You can follow her on Twitter @drkatynelson, on Facebook or email her at askdrkaty@wtop.com.

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