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.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW TO HELP
SPAY, NEUTER PETS -- February is Spay & Neuter Awareness Month. Spaying or neutering prevents overpopulation and saves the lives of animals which might otherwise be put down in a shelter or killed on the street.
New Beginnings for Merced County Animals offers free or low-cost spay or neuter procedures based on owner's ability to pay. Call Sharon Lohman at (209) 769-2122.
Merced Dog Owners Group will host a spay and neuter activities day on Feb. 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Merced Dog Park on Yosemite Avenue and R Street. Call (209) 631-3235 or visit www.mdogs.org.
MICROCHIP -- Get your pets microchipped and they have a better chance of being reunited with you if they get lost. The Merced County Animal Shelter offers microchips for $15. Call (209) 385-7436 or just stop in to inquire.
CONFINEMENT -- Always leash dogs in the front yard and never let them run loose. If you cannot care for your animal, do not dump it on the street. Contact a shelter or rescue group.
BY THE NUMBERS
Merced County Animal Control -- Shelter Statistics
Animals adopted 701 (7.07%) 303 (5.97%)
Animals returned 588 (5.92%) 320 (6.31%)
to their owners
Animals sent 3,975 (40.07%) 2,026 (39.93%)
to rescue groups
County animals 4,162 (41.97%) 2,170 (42.76%)
Dead animals 318 57
removed from roads
* (through December 2012)