"If they can't take care of themselves or their children, dogs are lower on that list," McFadden said.
The housing crisis also contributes, McFadden said, because many people have abandoned their pets after losing their homes or moving into apartments.
Animal shelter for pets
But if people are at risk of losing their homes, why not take their once-beloved companions to the shelter?
"People think we're going to automatically kill it at the shelter -- and we're not," Herzog said. "Without taking it to the shelter, the pet has no chance. On the streets, they have a better chance of starving to death or getting hit by a car."
Rick Blackwell, Merced County animal services manager, oversees the county's 27,000-square-foot animal shelter, which holds 150 dogs and 172 cats. He said last year's euthanasia rate decreased about 2 percent from 2010-2011, and almost 11 percent from 2009-2010.
"We will not euthanize a healthy animal that comes over the counter," Blackwell said. "We want the animals to have the best shot at getting a new home."
Animals are held up to five days at the shelter, before a decision is made whether they are adoptable. That decision is based on staff's interaction with the animal -- its behavior, various adoptability issues and whether it has injuries or illness.
The surrender fee from the owner guarantees the pet will have food, water, shelter and necessary vaccines. All animals are spayed and neutered before being adopted, Blackwell said.
At one point, the county had one of the highest euthanasia rates -- 82.98 percent in 2001-2002. Blackwell credits local rescue groups for lowering that rate by finding homes for the adoptable pets. In fact, 3,975 animals were sent to rescue groups last year.
Sharon Lohman, president of New Beginnings for Merced County Animals, said her rescue group started as an adoption agency. But they quickly learned that more animals can be saved by moving them to other areas where pets are needed -- outside of Merced County.
"By transporting them, we can help so many more (animals) than just doing the adoptions ourselves," Lohman said.
Working with 80 pre-screened rescue groups from Canada to Colorado, the volunteers transport about 3,000 animals a year. They even have a volunteer pilot who flies some pets out of state, Lohman said.
The group just transported 57 dogs to Washington state and Oregon on Friday morning. It also provides free or low-cost spay and neutering, based on the owner's ability to pay.
Renate Schmitz, co-founder of Last Hope Cat Kingdom in Atwater, said her sanctuary houses 120 cats and 65 dogs -- about 40 of them are strays.
"We take every animal that needs help, not just cats and dogs," Schmitz said. "As soon as we get them healthy, we'll find them homes."
But in the end, New Beginnings president Lohman said the hardest part is not being able to help all the deserving animals.
"You look at their eyes, and they wag and bark for attention," she said. "All they want is someone to care for them. Change is going to take time. The more the community gets involved in helping, the more changes we'll see."
The answers are clear, according to those who deal with the problem: Spay and neuter all pets, keep them inside or properly confined, and take them to a shelter if you can no longer care for them.
And if you can't afford the basics of pet care, they said, then don't have an animal.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.