The state’s budget crisis could bite the hand that feeds strays.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes saving $25 million by shortening the number of days that animals are held in county facilities before being put to sleep.

The change would temporarily repeal SB1785, known as the Hayden Bill, which in 1998 mandated that shelters keep animals for six days instead of the three formerly required.

The Legislative Anayst’s Office (LAO) estimates that the state owed local governments $23 million in 2008-09 for the cost of feeding, caring for and housing animals that are eventually euthanized for the additional three days. The cost of housing animals that are adopted or reclaimed is usually recovered through fees.

In the same report, the LAO called the law ineffective at raising adoption rates.

“This increased supply of adoptable animals can give households greater choice in selecting a pet to adopt. It does not necessarily mean, however, that more households adopt pets.”

Ron Whitfield, manager of the Solano County Animal Shelter says the longer holding period is needed because it gives families on vacation time to claim their pets before they are put to sleep.

Solano County supervisors are considering the construction of a new $34 million shelter for 600 animals. The rural area cares for 9,000 animals a year ranging from dogs and cats to goats and roosters.

The LAO suggested repealing the law permanently and replacing it with an incentive program that gives local governments $30 per animal adopted from shelters at a cost of approximately $12 million a year.

Animal protection groups at a hearing suggested an Animal Safety Net program that includes the reward for adopting, but even that could be difficult to pass in the current budget situation.

“The bottom line is if you don’t have money, you don’t have programs and if you don’t have programs, animal lives are in jeopardy,” says Steve McNall, president and CEO of the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA.

McNall says the timing of the cuts come at a particularly difficult time. After years of increasing adoption rates, animal surrenders are now on the rise due to the home foreclosure crisis. He has seen dog and cat populations increase by 23 percent.

As a nonprofit shelter, McNall doesn’t receive state funding, but he contracts with seven Southern California municipalities for animal control services and he worries the cuts could hurt those agencies.

“We have had dogs come in with notes tied around their neck saying the owners couldn’t keep their house, their car or their pets and could we please find a home,” McNall says. “A holding period gives an animal a second chance at a good life.”

McNall said people don’t understand how expensive it is to care for animals and the important role they play in the community.

The governor, a self-professed animal lover and dog owner, said in a newspaper interview that the cuts are unfortunate, but necessary given the state’s $2.4 billion budget shortfall.  “I feel terrible about it,” he told the San Diego Union Tribune.

JT Long can be reached at