(Andrew Tobin/JTA)

Judaism and Pets: Questions and Answers

What Jewish tradition says about cats, dogs and other companion animals.

For many Jews today, pets are beloved household members who are often considered part of the family. That is despite the commonly held perception that Jewish observance and pet ownership are incompatible.

  • There is no Jewish prohibition against owning pets, who belong to 60 percent of American households. And while we know of no studies on Jewish pet ownership, anecdotal evidence suggests that pet ownership is not uncommon among Jews, even in the Orthodox community.
  • Today, some Jews have even created Jewish life cycle rituals and mourning rites for pets.
  • In addition, numerous articles about the halachic (Jewish law) implications of pet ownership have been published, presumably in response to growing interest in pets among traditionally observant Jews

Below are some common questions about Jews and pets:

Is it true that Orthodox Jews don’t have pets? And what’s the origin of the perception that Judaism is averse to pets?

While there are no studies on Jewish pet ownership, anecdotal reports do suggests that pet ownership is less common among Orthodox Jews than among the general Jewish population. One possible explanation for this may be that Orthodox Jews on average have more children than do other Jews, leaving them with less time and money available to care for pets. Another factor may be the perception that pet ownership is frowned upon or will get in the way of ritual observance.

The idea that observant Jews are averse to keeping household pets may derive, in part, from the fact that dogs — the most common household pet in the United States and many other countries — are the subject of numerous derogatory statements in the Torah and Talmud. Additionally, keeping pets poses a number of challenges for the Sabbath-observant, although none of them is insurmountable. One other factor that has discouraged some Jews from owning dogs is an association with the Holocaust: Natan Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbi who was written extensively about Judaism and animals, has suggested that some European Jews have a “hang-up about dogs” born of the Nazis’ fondness for and use of the animals.

Can Jews own pets and still comply with traditional Jewish laws?

According to many Jewish sources, pet ownership is permissible provided the animals do not pose a danger to people or property.

As biblical sources attest, the Jewish patriarchs were shepherds and kept livestock. Jewish laws concerning treatment of animals — in particular the injunction against animal cruelty and the requirement that kosher animals be slaughtered by hand rather than hunted in the wild — clearly imply that Jews kept domestic animals.

The question of keeping pets for reasons of pleasure, companionship or because they serve some useful purpose is of more recent vintage. Contemporary authorities who have considered the permissibility of keeping pets have looked to talmudic sources that offer somewhat conflicting views about the propriety of keeping animals for non-agricultural purposes. One source in the Talmud (Bava Kamma 80a) states the permissibility of raising certain types of dogs and cats because they keep the house free of vermin — implying that animals may be kept if they perform a useful function. Yet elsewhere, the Talmud stipulates that dogs must be kept chained, which would clearly limit their usefulness. Another talmudic opinion states that those who keep dogs are cursed.

The requirement of chaining dogs persisted in later Jewish legal codes. Maimonides (the 12th-century scholar) reaffirmed that requirement and noted that dogs cause damage that is “substantial and frequent.”  The Shulchan Aruch (a 16th-century code of Jewish law) rules that it is forbidden to own an “evil dog” unless it is kept tied up; if one lives in a border town one can keep a dog (presumably for protection) provided it is let loose only at night — a reflection of the earlier talmudic principle of keeping animals if required for a particular function.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (a 16th-century Polish rabbi also known as the Rema ), in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, takes a slightly more permissive stance, noting that since Jews live dispersed among non-Jews, it’s permitted to own a dog if that’s the common practice of the surrounding culture, but an animal that is liable to harm people must be kept chained.

Rabbi Howard Jachter, who reviewed these precedents in a 1992 essay for the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society , asserts that the attitude toward dogs can be extended to all pets and concludes that the prevailing opinion is that pet ownership is permissible so long as the animal does not endanger people or property.

Can I spay or neuter my pet?

Not according to Jewish law. This prohibition is explicit in Leviticus 22:24, which states (regarding male animals): “You shall not offer to the Lord anything [with its testes] bruised or crushed or torn or cut. You shall have no such practices in your own land.” The Shulchan Aruch codifies this rule explicitly. Isserles, in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, notes that neutering a female animal is also prohibited.

Over the centuries, rabbinic authorities have proposed various leniencies in this prohibition, but none have been universally accepted. Some permit sterilization if done to alleviate suffering or to save an animal’s life; however in this case the procedure should be done by a non-Jew. In cases where non-sterilization would lead to financial loss, some decisors permitted it if the animal were first sold to a non-Jew and then another non-Jew was designated to perform the procedure. The Israeli Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Aviner has permitted Jewish veterinarians to spay female animals in case of therapeutic need on the grounds that neutering of females is considered a less serious infraction than neutering males. However neutering merely for convenience or for population control — the most common reason pets are usually neutered — remains forbidden. In 2015, Israel’s agriculture minister floated the idea of suspending a government program to neuter the country’s population of feral cats, apparently out of concern for the injunction against neutering. However, the proposal was not enacted and the program was not suspended.

Today, most pets adopted from animal shelters are already neutered. Since owning a neutered animal does not pose a problem from the perspective of Jewish law — only taking the active step of performing the procedure or ordering someone else to do it — traditionally observant Jews can avoid the issue by adopting pets that have already been neutered.

Can one care for a pet while observing traditional Shabbat laws?

Shabbat laws pose a number of issues for pet owners. The Talmud declares that animals are muktzeh, the term for items that cannot be handled on the Sabbath because they are used for prohibited activities (such as farming), and the Shulchan Aruch states that one should not move an animal on the Sabbath. However, this does not mean it’s forbidden to feed or play with animals on Shabbat, and in addition, there is some dispute as to whether the muktzeh designation applies to household pets.

The Torah, in Exodus 20:10, requires that an owner allow his animals to rest on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. This ruling is understood to prohibit an animal from performing any act prohibited to a Jew on the Sabbath. (If dogs could turn on lights or cook, for example, an observant Jew would not be able to order their dog to perform these tasks on Shabbat.) Since carrying is prohibited on the Sabbath, this would clearly prohibit having a dog fetch the morning newspaper. Whether a dog may “carry” identifying tags around its neck hinges largely on whether the tags are considered a benefit for the dog or for its owner. Holding a leash while walking a dog is not considered carrying, according to several sources. However, both the Shulchan Aruch and Maimonides rule that the leash must be kept no more than three inches below the hand of the person holding it.

A final concern regards capturing a pet that has gotten loose on the Sabbath. The Mishnah states that one who traps a domesticated animal on the Sabbath is exempt from punishment; however there is some debate over whether that means it is permitted to do so or merely that a violator would not be liable. According to Jachter, if an animal offers only limited resistance to an owner’s attempt to capture it, there are grounds for allowing its capture. However, if an animal offers significant resistance, it cannot be recaptured on the Sabbath. As a result, it’s good practice on the Sabbath not to remove an animal from a leash, or release a bird from a cage, to avoid the problem altogether.

Can you feed your pet non-kosher food?

Yes, with two exceptions. According to the Shulchan Aruch, one cannot derive benefit from a biblically proscribed mixture of milk and meat. Consequently, it is forbidden to feed a pet any food that includes milk and meat. This law applies only to biblically proscribed milk/meat mixtures, which are limited to ingredients from kosher domesticated animals. Non-kosher animal meat mixed with milk, for example, would not be prohibited.

The other exception is Passover, when it is forbidden not only to eat leavened grains, but even to own them or benefit from them. There are a number of possible workarounds for pets, including selling the pet to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday, making your own pet food, or purchasing kosher-for-Passover pet food. Some kosher certifying agencies, such as Star-K, publish annual lists of kosher-for-Passover pet food brands.

Are there any Jewish laws governing how you treat your pet?

Yes. While Jewish tradition permits human beings to make use of animals, acts of cruelty toward them are expressly prohibited — a principle known as tza’ar baalei chayim. General principles of how Jews ought to treat animals show concern both for the physical suffering of animals — Maimonides forbids using an animal to thresh a field if a thorn is stuck in its mouth, for example — as well as their emotional pain, as evinced by the law barring the taking of eggs from a nest while the mother bird is present. Jewish tradition also dictates that one feed one’s animals before feeding oneself. According to some authorities, this principle may not apply if the animal is capable of securing its own food. According to Slifkin, the permissibility of declawing a cat or removing a dog’s tail is not discussed explicitly by Jewish legal authorities; however the general principle is that causing pain to animals for the benefit of humans is permitted provided the benefit is not trivial and the pain is not too great.

Are there any Jewish rituals for mourning a pet?

The idea of mourning a pet in the way one mourns a relative is deeply controversial, with authorities from even the liberal Reform movement maintaining that reciting Kaddish or performing a Jewish burial rite for a pet is inconsistent with Jewish tradition. In a 1984 responsum, Reform Rabbi Walter Jacob wrote that it would be wrong to recite the Kaddish prayer for a deceased pet — not due to any explicit violation of Jewish law, but because of propriety. “We should not use a prayer which is dear to the heart of every Jew to commemorate a dead animal,” Jacob wrote. A separate Reform responsum rejected burying a pet in a Jewish cemetery, again not citing any explicit legal precedent, but rather asserting that “the whole mood of tradition” counsels against it.

Nevertheless, some rabbis do perform pet burials and a number of Jewish rituals for pet loss have been developed. In 1998, the journal of the Reform movement’s rabbinical association published a ritual for pet loss by veterinarian Ruth Chodrow that includes readings from the Bible, among them several psalms. Other Jewish pet rituals have been published by Rabbi Susan Schein  and Rabbi Janet Offel. Some rabbis who perform such rites say that they should not mimic human funerals.

Can I give my dog a bark mitzvah?

(Brad Lewis/Flickr)

If you must. The first record of a bar/bat-mitzvah ceremony adapted for a dog was (according to Wikipedia) in 1958, but this canine rite of passage seems to have had its 15 minutes of fame only in the Internet era. A search for “bark mitzvah” on YouTube yields over 1,700 results, and articles on the practice have appeared in the New York Times and the Associated Press. Some ceremonies have included Torah scrolls, dogs wearing kippahs, and celebratory parties for the honoree and its canine “friends.” The term was even trademarked with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2007.

Not everyone, however, is amused. In a letter to the Times responding to a 1997 mention of a bark mitzvah in its pages, Rabbi Charles Kroloff, who later served as president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, wrote: “This is nothing less than a desecration of a cherished Jewish tradition and degrades some of the central principles of Jewish life. I urge readers to reject such practices.”

Human bar/bat mitzvah celebrants seeking ways to incorporate their love of pets and other animals into the “mitzvah,” or community service, projects that are often part of this life cycle event, can find suggestions and a related Jewish curriculum here.

Are there any other Jewish rituals for pets?

In recent years, some Jewish leaders have developed public rituals for pets. Some synagogues now have pet-friendly Shabbat services  while others have created opportunities to bless pets in synagogues. There has also been some effort to revive the practice of Rosh Hashanah LaBehema, the Jewish new year for animals, on the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Some contemporary Jewish animal advocates have sought to re-establish the holiday as a time for prayer and reflection on the proper relationship between humans and animals.

Learn more about Jewish rituals and practices related to honoring or caring for animals here.

Do pets (and other animals) have souls?

According to the creation story in Genesis, God blew into Adam the breath of life (nishmat chayim) and he became a living being (nefesh chayah). Both nefesh and neshama are Hebrew terms used for “soul.” From here, some understand that human beings have two types of soul — a nefesh, that equates to one’s animal instincts, and a neshamah, a higher level of consciousness capable of connection with the divine.

Both the Midrash and Maimonides reject the idea that animals have an afterlife in the world to come, the implication being that they do not possess higher immortal soul of human beings. However, the Jewish mystical tradition associated with Rabbi Isaac Luria believes in the transmigration of souls between humans and animals. A human soul that requires further rectification could be reincarnated in the body of an animal. For this reason, Hasidic Jews historically were often exceedingly careful about the kosher slaughter of animals for fear they might house the souls of repentant sinners.

Can I euthanize my pet?

Jewish law prohibits cruelty to animals, but does not prohibit killing them. Virtually all Jewish authorities agree that euthanizing an animal that is suffering is permitted. In, Man and Beast: Our Relationships with Animals in Jewish Law and Thought, Slifkin writes:

According to some authorities there is no restriction on killing animals, provided that one kills them in a painless manner. However, it seems that all would agree that if an animal is suffering, it is permissible to kill it in order to put it out of its misery.

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