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Sonoma County's animal shelter has adopted new policies aimed at easing overcrowded conditions and reducing the number of healthy animals that are needlessly killed.

Dog and cat owners who want to surrender their pets now must schedule an appointment with shelter staff to discuss alternatives. Healthy animals will be taken in only if space is available, otherwise these owners must wait.

The changes, which also include a new trap-and-release program for feral cats, represent a fundamental shift from the shelter's open-door policy.

Most public shelters in California operate in that fashion, with the result that it has been "letting in a flood and drowning everybody," said Brigid Wasson, who was hired Sept. 17 as the director of Sonoma County Animal Care and Control.

The county shelter's conversion to a "managed intake" facility is an effort to stem that tide. Concerns have been raised, however, that the new restrictions might prompt some pet owners to dump animals elsewhere.

Such a fate often isn't any worse for the animal, and may even be better, than if it had been admitted to the shelter, particularly in the case of cats.

An estimated 393,000 cats entered public shelters in California in 2010, an increase of 25,000 from 1998. About 278,000 cats were killed in shelters in 2010, which is only slightly fewer than the number killed in 1998.

The data is contained in a report generated by a group of animal welfare experts that seeks fundamental change in how public shelters operate.

Veterinarian Kate Hurley, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at University of California-Davis and one of the report's authors, noted in an interview that shelters house less than one percent of the estimated population of domesticated and feral cats, and yet facilities are still swamped.

She said shelter managers normally respond by going beyond capacity, a decision she said has "crippled themselves without really helping cats."

Wasson said 79 cats are currently available for adoption at the county shelter — 29 more than the facility's targeted maximum. She said kittens are doubled up in cages, and that the shelter has had to farm out some of the overflow to local pet supply stores.

To help staunch the flow, the shelter has launched a new program in which feral cats that are trapped and brought to the shelter are spayed or neutered and then returned to where they were found, so long as it is safe to do so. The program is called "Community Cats" and operates in partnership with the Sonoma Humane Society and Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County.

Wasson said 100 cats were spared euthanasia in September when the program was tested. Such programs are already a feature of other shelters, including at the Humane Society.

"If there isn't room at the shelter, it doesn't serve anybody to keep taking in animals when you basically have to make euthanasia decisions based on space," said Kiska Icard, executive director of the Sonoma Humane Society, which operates a shelter on Highway 12 near Sebastopol.

She said Community Cats is the more affordable option, given that the average cost to house a cat in a shelter during the initial assessment phase is between $200 and $250, compared to about $60 to alter the animal and release it.

Santa Rosa artist Al Longo has a number of feral cats living on his property in southwest Santa Rosa. On Friday, Longo welcomed one of the cats back to his home after he got the animal spayed at the county shelter.

"If more people participated in the program, then obviously the population is not going to increase as rapidly as it has and eventually it will take care of itself," he said.

Sick or injured animals, or those deemed a threat to public safety, are still likely to be admitted to the county shelter without delay. More than 5,000 animals are housed at the shelter in any given year.

The new restrictions apply to dog owners, who must make an appointment when they seek to surrender their pets, which are also subject to space limitations. Wasson said the shelter has 33 dogs up for adoption, with space for 48. However, she said more than 40 additional dogs are waiting to be assessed and altered.

Dogs in general have fared better in California shelters. In 2010, 459,000 dogs entered the state's shelters, a decrease of 80,000 from 1998. The number of dogs that were killed also dropped from 326,000 in 1998, to 173,000 in 2010, according to the animal welfare report.

The report, which is being presented to animal welfare groups throughout the state, makes 23 recommendations for change.

Topping the list is reducing intake at shelters, using methods that are now being implemented in Sonoma County.

Animal welfare experts said there's scant evidence that such changes bring about a significant increase in pet dumping.

"There's things that have been said enough times that people believe them. I've never seen any data that supports that claim and we've not run into that," said Jeff Charter, executive director of the Petaluma Animal Shelter.

He said the shelter's recently-adopted policy of requiring appointments has resulted in a waiting period of about a week. Charter said the consultations have helped people resolve issues that in some cases led them to keep their pets, or to find other homes.

"It's a much more stress-free process," he said.

Vickie Brown, founder of No Kill Sonoma County, expressed enthusiasm for the changes at the county shelter.

"It used to be killing for space. Now, it's looking at saving lives," she said.

However, she said the shelter could have a better network of volunteers. She also said a week is too long to get in to see someone about a crisis involving a pet.

"If you're desperate, that's a long time. You start looking for other shelters. It should be about two days," she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)