Pet overpopulation is the major problem we in animal welfare face today. Let's look at the way this problem occurs, who makes it happen, and whether you could be a part of the problem. This week's column on pet overpopulation was guest-written by Peggy Hinnen, director of Salt Lake County Animal Services.

Anyone who allows a pet to reproduce is a part of the problem. This is true whether your pet produces one litter a week or one litter in a lifetime. Every animal born adds to the overpopulation problem. Pet owners generally fall into two categories: those who act responsibly and those who do not.In my opinion the truly responsible owner will have the pet sterilized at the earliest possible age to eliminate any potential for unwanted births.

Also within the responsible category are purebreed enthusiasts who breed their pets, using their knowledge and skill, to produce offspring that will be outstanding in performance or conformation. These people do not breed their animals with the intention of monetary gain but to improve their particular breed. However, by virtue of the fact that almost every litter contains multiple offspring, these owners are contributing to the overpopulation problem.

People who allow their pet to have one litter, for whatever reason, also may be primarily responsible owners. Usual reasons for these litters include wanting the children to see the miracle of birth, wanting an offspring of a pet the owner is particularly fond of, etc. The problem with this attitude is that there are already too many homeless pets in the community and each additional birth is a potential early or immediate death. All too often the "miracle of birth" is followed very closely by the reality of death. Although a pet owner may get the additional pet he wanted, what about the other members of that litter who will most likely end their live being euthanized (killed) at the local humane society or animal control shelter?

Now we come to the irresponsible owner: that person who allows a pet to indiscriminately breed, year after year and makes no effort to change the situation. This person essentially is running a "puppy or kitten mill," even though there may be no monetary gain. This is true with the owner who is merely letting the pet have free range and pregnancy is the result, as well as with the owner of a purebred animal who is continually breeding that animal for profit.

It is readily evident to anyone who visits an animal shelter that there are many, many more dogs and cats waiting to go into homes than there are homes for them. Because there are not enough homes for these animals, the animals are killed. This causes the people who work with the animals in the shelters a tremendous amount of emotional trauma on an ongoing basis, which would not be necessary if the animals in homes were sterilized.

The cost of the sterilization is saved by the owners over a few years in reduced licensing fees and fewer trips to the veterinarian to get the pet repaired after forays related to the breeding cycle or problems with delivery. In addition, problems in older dogs that have not been spayed, such as mammary tumors, are vastly reduced. For more information on the long-term benefits of sterilization, contact your veterinarian.

The question remains: Are you part of the problem? Think about it, and if you are not acting as responsibly as you would like, make the changes and make a difference.

- If you have a question about health, behavior problems, laws, etc., regarding wild or domestic animals, please write Leslie Kelson-Probert, Salt Lake County Animal Services, 511 W. 3900 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84123, or call her at 264-2247.