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Behind the big drop in euthanasia for America's dogs and cats

Fido and Fluffy are far more likely to survive a stint at the animal shelter today than 40 years ago. Population control and better practices by shelters and pet owners have improved the lot of dogs and cats. 

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Volunteer Kelly Petter plays with dogs at the Northeast Animal Shelter, a no-kill facility in Salem, Mass. As many as 7 million animals enter shelters each year.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Fewer dogs and cats than ever before are being put to death at animal shelters across the United States. Instead they're living out their lives in pet-care facilities or with families.

The number of animals euthanized each year has decreased dramatically over the past four decades, from some 20 million in 1970 to about 3 million in 2011. Meanwhile, the number of pets has more than doubled since the 1970s, to about 160 million dogs and cats, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The decline represents a big shift in the standard of care for America's pets – at shelters and by pet owners, say animal welfare experts.

"There's much more awareness of appropriate pet ownership nowadays," says Inga Fricke, director of sheltering and pet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). "The progress that we have made in reducing shelter euthanasia rates shows not only a huge change in rescue operations but also positive trends that have transformed the way people care for pets."

Chief among them, Ms. Fricke says, is the higher priority put on spaying and neutering stray animals and new pets.

In the 1970s, animal shelter populations and euthanasia rates hit their peak. Overrun with stray animals, shelters routinely "put to sleep" animals they couldn't make room for, Fricke says. "That is the lowest point anyone can remember, when we were euthanizing some 20 million animals every single year," she says. "They were healthy and adoptable animals that no one wanted and no one had homes for."

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