America may love pets, but it has a serious problem with pet overpopulation. Each year, anywhere from 6 million to 8 million cats and dogs enter the nation’s pet shelter system. Of those, up to 4 million, many of which are healthy and adoptable, end up being euthanized, according to the U.S. Humane Society. To put the number in starker terms, one pet is put down every two seconds in a typical 40-hour workweek.

The problem is too many cats and dogs and not enough families to adopt them or enough funds to shelter them properly. Nationwide, $2 billion is spent annually to impound, shelter, euthanize and dispose of homeless animals, according to the Oxford-Lafayette Humane Society of Mississippi.

Pittsburgh hopes to reduce that number by encouraging pet owners to spay or neuter their cats and dogs. (A female animal is spayed and a male is neutered.) The city had been spending up to $197 to detain and shelter each stray pet. But under a program that offers free spaying and neutering to pet owners, Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene Harris worked a deal with local shelters that cost the city only $30 to spay or neuter a cat and up to $120 to fix a large dog. A single surgery can save up to 55 unwanted animals from being born, Harris says.

“[Since] the price for spaying and neutering is way below the price [for sheltering a pet], I thought that instead of paying $197 for each animal and having all of these animals euthanized, let’s start a free spay and neuter program in Pittsburgh,” she says.

Pittsburgh’s Spay/Neuter Program initially began as a pilot project in Harris’ district with a budget of approximately $70,000, and it handled around 60 feral cats before sending them back to the neighborhood. That program has grown into a $170,000 project that covers free spaying or neutering for at least 3,000 animals. Previously, the city provided discounts to low-income individuals, but the program was terminated in 2003. For nearly five years, the city didn’t conduct any spaying or neutering, according to Harris. The cutbacks had predictable results. “The population of feral cats and the overpopulation of pit bulls in Pittsburgh [continued to get worse],” she says. “It’s just been incredible.”

Today, the program will spay or neuter, for free, all five animals that city residents are legally allowed to own. Pet owners can also bring feral cats from their neighborhood in for the procedure, even if that means they’re bringing in more than the five animals allowed. Because feral cats are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, however, they are not guaranteed a free surgery.

The city’s Animal Care and Control Bureau runs the program. It works with local shelters, handles all calls and questions related to spaying and neutering, and reviews all applications for the procedures. “We coordinate on which shelter is going to do the spaying and the neutering. [Then they] basically send the bill back to our office and we pay the invoices,” says bureau Supervisor Gerald Akrie.

Akrie stresses that the bureau’s policy is not to euthanize any healthy or adoptable animal. “They are never euthanized,” he says, “never in the history of this department, which is over 30 years.” Still, Pittsburgh spent $304,000 to detain 691 dogs and 853 cats in 2010, many of which were euthanized by private shelters.

The ultimate goal, according to both Harris and Akrie, is for the city to one day own and run its own shelter, where it can set standards for other shelters to follow. “Right now we’re dealing with shelters that aren’t under the authority of the city of Pittsburgh,” Akrie says. “They have their own guidelines, so we don’t have any influence over what these private not-for-profit businesses, if you want to call them that, want to do.”

Pittsburgh’s efforts to reduce euthanasia while keeping the overall pet population under control reflects a growing nationwide effort to change how shelters and cities work together on the pet overpopulation problem. More shelters are adopting “no kill” practices, but that can force cities to spend more on animal control -- not an easy thing to do in tough fiscal times. The solution has been to focus on setting up programs similar to the one in Pittsburgh, combined with outreach efforts to find homes for the fixed pets.

Moving forward, city funds currently used for animal detention and euthanasia will increasingly go toward the free Spay/Neuter Program. “You’ll be seeing this detention number going down, but it’s going to cost us a little until we get more animals spayed and neutered,” Harris says.

As long as Harris is around, she says the program -- the first in the state and possibly the nation -- will continue. “We’ve been spaying and neutering hundreds of dogs and cats, and the program has been successful,” she says. “The overpopulation of pets is tragic. It costs the citizens and taxpayers in this country millions of dollars annually through animal services, and spaying/neutering is the only 100 percent proven way to reduce the population.”

Pet control is a broad-based problem. “The health of the animals is at stake, the safety of the residents is at stake,” says Akrie. “Hopefully, the ripple effect of this [Spay/Neuter Program] will be less bites, less strays on the streets of Pittsburgh, and less health concerns for owners and their pets. It’s a win-win situation in every area, and it’s an unbelievable give-back program.”