MERCED -- They are known as man's best friend.
Regardless of size, color or breed -- they're guaranteed to greet you at the door with a wagging tail and wet nose at the end of a long day.
But Merced County's stray animal population -- dogs in particular -- is out of control, according to area veterinarians and animal control officials.
Innocent animals getting hit by cars, some being tortured or killed by other animals and people, and many starving after being abandoned or let loose by owners.
There's also the impact on people -- unnecessary car accidents and the possibility of dog bites.
Those who deal with the county's strays and care for them said the problem is only going to get worse unless the community comes together to understand the issue.
And then to take action to make it stop.
Kim Herzog, Merced police animal control officer, has seen it all. But even after 27 years on the job, it still keeps her on her toes. "It's always something new," Herzog said. "You never know. It depends on what calls come in."
On a sunny Friday morning, Herzog finds herself making the usual stops -- reminding a dog owner to confine her two dogs that keep "escaping" from the front yard into the street, picking up dead cats and re-uniting a microchipped dog with his owner.
Herzog loves her job, but she's just one person covering more than 23 square miles in Merced, five days a week.
Last year, Merced police animal control picked up 466 unclaimed dogs that went to the shelter. In comparison, 68 unclaimed cats were taken to the shelter. Roughly 237 dead animals were removed from roadways -- 83 dogs, 136 cats and 18 "other" animals, such as possums and raccoons.
On any given day, Herzog sees firsthand the consequences of people not spaying or neutering their pets and overpopulation from breeding.
"You have people that just will not spay or neuter their animal, and that's where you get all the strays running around," Herzog said.
Dr. Christine McFadden, a Merced veterinarian at Valley Animal Hospital, agrees that irresponsible breeding adds thousands of unwanted animals to the population.
"Anyone that lets their animal breed is adding to the problem, no matter how good their intentions are," McFadden said.
The solution is simple: Spay and neuter pets to prevent unwanted liters of kittens and puppies. If a dog has a litter of eight puppies, will all of them find homes? The experts say no, and most of those puppies will end up on Merced's streets.
To make matters worse, the stray population runs rampant in rural communities because of less fencing and a more relaxed mentality.
"A lot of people turn them loose in the front yard, then assume they'll come back -- but they don't," Herzog said, adding that dogs need to be leashed in front yards.
"People think it's OK to let animals loose -- it's not. Keep animals confined," she added. "If everyone kept their animals in their yard, you wouldn't have unwanted litters."
Dr. William Bell, chief of staff at Santa Fe Pet Hospital in Merced, said his team sees at least two animals a week that are injured from being hit by cars.
Dogs such as a lovable female white German shepherd who broke her right hind leg after being hit by a car. It was amputated this week and now she's at the Merced County Animal Shelter waiting for a new home.
"Do not let them run around," Bell said. "Especially males, because they will chase females in heat."
The other factor leading to strays in Merced County is socio-economic conditions. It's no secret that the area's economy has suffered during the recession, putting a financial strain on residents. That has trickled down to the animals.