LOS ANGELES - When Stephen Zawistowski got his first dog 50 years ago, she was the only dog in the neighborhood that was spayed.
"She had an incision that must have been a foot long and was sewn up with what looked like piano wire," says Zawistowski, science adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
It took years of campaigning to change thinking about sterilizing pets, but it has paid off. This year fewer than 4 million unwanted dogs and cats will be euthanized, down from as many as 20 million before 1970.
There are several reasons: Aggressive adopt-a-pet campaigns are carried out every day in cities all over the country and breed rescues save many dogs. But animal experts believe spaying and neutering has played the biggest role in saving so many lives.
Nearly every public shelter, private rescue or animal welfare organization in the country donates money, space or time to low-cost spay and neuter clinics.
Spaying and neutering has become the law in some states, counties and cities. Many states require all shelter animals to be sterilized. Rhode Island requires most cats to be sterilized, and Los Angeles requires most dogs and cats to be spayed or neutered by the time they are 4 months old.
You can help
For more information about low-cost spay/neuter programs, contact the following organizations:
Animal Welfare League: 330-394-4122
TNR of Warren: www.tnrofwarren.org, 330-330-8166
Cats Are People Too: www.catsarepeopletoo.org, 330-847-6134
Cat Ladies Society: thecatladiessociety.com, 330-792-4228
Barbara Busko of the Animal Welfare League of Trumbull County said the Trumbull County Veterinarian Medical Association started a low-cost spay and neuter program in 1991 called the Alternative Solution.
"We saw a big reduction of especially puppies coming into the shelter," Busko said.
While shelters are firmly onboard, the biggest problem has been selling sterilization programs to pet owners.
When pets are sterilized, their reproductive organs are removed so they can no longer breed. Some people consider that unnecessary mutilation of their pets.
There are those who say: "You won't do that to my dog because I wouldn't want it done to me," Zawistowski says.
Busko said it's usually men with male dogs expressing that sentiment. Or some may say they want their children to see "the miracle of life" when a litter is born.
She counters that with the public becoming aware of "the misery of death."
Busko said a "dumped dog" may live about two years on its own. Cats can last longer, but quality of life is an issue.
"The whole thing could be taken care of if we had laws that required them to be fixed," Busko said.
Also appalling to Busko is the ways people take the problem into their own hands.
"You have people that think nothing of drowing them, shooting them or putting them in a plastic bag and suffocating them," she said. "That's the reality that exists, in particular with your kittens because there are so many of them."
Zawistowski said it wasn't just pet owners who had to be convinced - so did veterinarians.
Medical procedures have caught up in the last half-century and a lot of people have changed their thinking.
"Now they make a one- or two-inch incision and use self-absorbing sutures" that mean a much quicker recovery for the animals, Zawistowski says.
Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Found Animals, a Los Angeles-based charity, agrees. "It's become a tenet of responsible ownership," she says of spaying and neutering.
Busko said that while dogs go into heat usually in the spring and fall, cats are in heat every 63 days. When a kitten is five months old, it can reproduce. Each litter is between three and seven kittens.
"The moment she gives birth, she can get pregnant again," Busko said. "If everyone would just spay or neuter their pet, we could reduce the overpopulation of the unwanted animals."
In addition to eliminating shelter kills, spaying and neutering can make pets easier to manage, less aggressive and healthier, said Andrew N. Rowan, president and CEO of Humane Society International and chief scientific officer for the Humane Society of the United States.
So what drove the changes, and what now?
The first public spay and neuter clinic in the U.S. was opened in Los Angeles in 1969 and was so successful that there was a four-month waiting list. Another opened four years later and charged $17.50 for spaying female cats and dogs and $11.50 for neutering males, said Linda Gordon, director of facility development for the city's Department of Animal Services.
A low-cost shelter today charges about $55 to neuter a male cat and $60 to spay a female cat, around $150 to spay a female dog under 30 pounds and between $150 and $250 (depending on size) to neuter a dog, said Carrie Harrington, communications director for the Marin Humane Society in Novato, north of San Francisco.
The first private low-cost clinic was opened in 1973 by the Marin shelter, using $42,000 raised by its women's auxiliary thrift store. This year, the group will raise money to help sterilize about 2,300 pets, Harrington said.
The steep decline in the number of animals being euthanized each year comes even as the pet population has boomed. In 1970, there were about 62 million companion pets and today there are about 170 million, Zawistowski said.
"We have seen an increase in pet owners that want to get their animals fixed, definitely," said Corky Stiles, treasurer of TNR?of Warren, said. The organization has spayed and neutered more than 1,100 cats, she said. And about 60 percent of those have been pets.
Busko also feels it's the responsibility of humans to have dogs and cats fixed - after all, we are the ones who domesticated them and made them dependent upon us.
"I would rather see their lives become precious and few than have so many that they are worthless," she said.