While the homeless pet population is still a major problem in the United States, the dog population seems to be coming under control. The number of dogs being handled by shelters has declined substantially, says Andrew Rowan, director of the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy in Grafton, Mass.

He attributes the decline to better education of dog owners on the part of shelters and changes in veterinary practices, such as low-cost sterilization.

"The gigantic overbreeding of dogs isn't occurring, and that's a great relief to us," says Carter Luke, vice president of Humane Services with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and president of the National Council on Pet Population. The unowned, outdoor cat population is a different story, he says. This summer the seven shelters under the MSPCA will average 2,500 kittens a month - by the basket and boxful.

The biggest reason for the huge homeless cat population - 40 million to 60 million in the US - is their rapid rate of breeding. Animal experts estimate that more than half of all stray and feral (wild) female cats are pregnant at any given time. But another part of the problem has to do with people's view of cat ownership. "You have a much more casual relationship" between cat owners and cats than with dog owners and dogs, Dr. Rowan notes.

Most people make a conscious effort to acquire a dog; it's more of a commitment. Cats often acquire the owner rather than the other way around. One study indicates that between 10 and 15 percent of all US households feed stray and feral cats.

"What we need to do is go back to the problem: why we have so many animals to begin with," says Martha Armstrong, vice president in charge of companion animals for the Humane Society of the United States. "We have to take a look at our animal-control laws, including licensing. People don't take responsibility for animals.... We're the ones who domesticated animals and decided they would be our companions. It's up to us to solve the problem."

The good news is that animal euthanization is down. The numbers are fuzzy, Rowan says, but generally speaking:

*In 1973, Americans owned 65 million dogs and cats. About 13 million animals were euthanized in shelters.

*In 1992, pet ownership had grown to 110 million dogs and cats; about 5 million were euthanized in shelters.

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