That began to change when the first low-cost spay/neuter clinic opened in 1971 in Los Angeles, and the number of animals handled annually by shelters has declined rapidly ever since, according to HSUS data. Indeed, sterilization is practiced much more routinely in shelters today, to strike at the root of animal overpopulation and to find a closer balance between available animals and adoptive homes.
"It has become the standard practice of care," Fricke says. "Years ago, no one really thought or cared about it, but today, it's the exception to have an animal that's not [sterilized]. You make sure [your pet] is spayed or neutered the same way it's properly groomed and taken care of."
It's no small expense. While fees for spaying or neutering a pet vary widely by region, by clinic, and by the size of the animal, the bill often runs into the hundreds of dollars. That people are willing to incur such a cost speaks to the magnitude of the shift in attitude toward the importance of animal population control.
Sterilization is the biggest reason for the decline in shelter euthanasia, says Andrew Rowan, chief scientific officer of HSUS, but it's not the only reason. "There's more of a pet culture today," he says. "People who want dogs have dogs. People who don't want them don't, and they don't have them living outside on their street either."
Still, 5 million to 7 million companion animals enter shelters nationwide each year. Along with spaying and neutering, rescue operations focus on the broader concern for animal welfare, says Cindi Shapiro, president of the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Mass.
Founder of one of the largest no-kill animal shelters in the Northeast, Ms. Shapiro says the mind-set of shelter workers has shifted over time.
"In the past, it was acceptable to throw an animal away, the way you would an old television set," she says. "You would just bring them to the shelter and dump the old dog you don't want anymore."
Shelter personnel were no different, she continues. "For a long time, it's just what you did," she says. "[Animals] came in; you killed them. No one thought that was wrong."