25 The Place of Pets in Our Lives: Some Christian and Buddhist Perspectives

Briar Golladay

Hello! My name is Briar. During my time at Ohio State, I majored in Zoology and had a minor in Global Public Health. I am currently pursuing a career in the field of veterinary medicine, so animals, and pets in particular, are a very big part of my life. Because of my love for animals, I thought it would be a great idea to explore the human perspective on them through a religious lens. I believe this chapter will be relatable to many pet owners, and I hope it encourages others to think more deeply about the role animals play in our lives.

If you ask a person to tell you about their favorite pet they’ve had, no matter how long it has been since it lived, their faces will most likely light up with joy as they tell you a humorous or heartwarming story about “the best cat” or “the best dog in the world!” Love and appreciation for our pets seems to be a relatively universal trait that, for many of us, is also interconnected with our religious or moral values and feelings toward nature.

Take for example my first cat, T.T. My parents adopted T.T. in the early 1990s, several years before I was born, so by the time I was old enough to play with him, he had become quite the old man. This did not mean, however, that T.T. had lost his lust for life – in fact, he had an adventurous, courageous spirit up until the very end. I believe that part of his zeal for life came from the fact that he almost did not make it past kittenhood – when he was a few weeks old, T.T. suffered a stroke that left him with a permanent head tilt for the rest of his life. Thankfully, the stroke did not cause him any long-lasting pain, and I believe this second chance inspired him to live life to the fullest. T.T. was a great first pet – he encouraged me and my brother to go outside more because he was always exploring, he was patient when we pet him a little too roughly or not quite in the right spots, and he even taught us about the circle of life by leaving little “presents” on our doorstep.

When T.T. finally passed away, he taught me new lessons about my family’s spirituality. Although I was only five at the time, I remember my mom placing his still body in a little shoe box and saying a prayer for him before closing the lid. Later that day, we buried him under a large, flat rock in our backyard, and placed a statue of a praying woman on top to mark his grave. About ten years later, when my family decided to do backyard renovations, we dug up his little bones and reburied them in a more natural area. I remember seeing my younger brother mark his grave with a cross made out of two twigs tied together with twine.

The funny thing about this story is that my family is not particularly religious, but T.T. brought out their spiritual side just by existing. His life and death also inspired me to ponder certain questions related to religion, spirituality, and our pets. Although many of these questions are incredibly difficult to answer, I believe exploring them from the perspectives of different religions is incredibly worthwhile.

Fast forward to the present, and much of my life is still devoted to caring for animals. I currently work at an animal hospital, and plan on having a career in the veterinary medical field upon graduation. Through my work, I have seen time and time again that my T.T. story is not an anomaly – many people have deep, spiritual connections to their pets, and they are often willing to go to great lengths to see them happy and healthy. In the U.S., 38.4% of households own at least one dog, and 25.4% own at least one cat. Dog owners spend an average of $410 on care for their dogs every year. Cat owners spend an average of $182 (AVMA, 2021). A non-pet owner may argue that this willingness to spend money on our pets is purely due to their aesthetic or work value, but for many owners, pets provide them with significantly more happiness and a more fulfilling, meaningful life. This fulfillment may come from a better connection with nature – many breeds of dogs require multiple hours of exercise a day, which encourages their owners to exercise with them, often in the form of a long walk, a run, a hike in nature, or simply an hour or so of fetch in the backyard. In my case, my connection to nature came from T.T.’s love of exploring, as I would often follow him to his secret hiding places in our backyard. Although in most cases, pets have been bred for generations to look and act a certain way, they are still very much a part of nature, and thus it is fitting that they encourage us to more fully ponder its meaning in our lives. Just as it is our responsibility to take care of nature, as it has been undeniably affected by our human presence, it is our responsibility to take care of our pets.

In my family’s case, fulfillment came from a deeper connection to the spiritual dimensions of life – T.T.’s miraculous life and death encouraged us to think harder about our own views of life and our connection with the natural world. In fact, many people find that pets create and grow the connection between themselves and their spirituality. In the book The Grace of Dogs: A boy, a black lab, and a father’s search for the canine soul, author and theologian Andrew Root says, “could there be something unique, maybe even intentional and holy, about dogs and their place in our lives?” (Root, 2017, p. 23). This question encompasses much of the spiritual relationship felt between humans and their pets and encourages one to delve deeper into their understanding of animals and their relationship to humanity and the divine.

A photo of my parents taken in the late eighties holding my first cat T.T.

The Connection Between Biblical Values and Owning Pets [1]

            If we focus specifically on the United States, it is likely that a person’s perspective on their pet is influenced at least in some part by Christianity, given that a majority of Americans are Christian. To better understand what the Christian values about pets are, it is important to look to the Bible, the Christian Word of God. So, what does the Bible say about animals? Beginning in the first chapter of Genesis, God lays out his directions for human care of animals by saying to the humans “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” As we have learned in this class, the words “subdue” and “dominion” have less of a dictatorial connotation, and instead indicate that humanity should be good stewards and caretakers of these animals. This value is clearly reflected in many Christians’ love and appreciation for their pets. Although our pets certainty enrich and sometimes even save our lives, in many cases, we also enrich and save theirs. Another similar verse comes from Proverbs 12: “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” This verse also bolsters the idea that the “dominion” of Genesis 1 is better defined as caretaking – clearly, God wants his followers to take the lives of animals into account and treat them with love and respect, just as God asks his followers to treat each other as such. Another verse pertaining to animals comes from 2 Samuel Chapter 12:

“And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock   or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.’”

This story is told by Nathan to explain to David his wrongdoing in the taking of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, to be his, but David’s anger at the rich man illustrates that the act of taking and hurting one’s pet is a terrible sin in the eyes of Christians. A final verse comes from Luke Chapter 12: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.” This verse clearly indicates that God cares for all living creatures, thus as His stewards of the Earth, it is our job to care for them as well.  Although pets like we have nowadays were not common in biblical times, it is clear from these passages that humans are responsible for taking care of animals, including pets, and treating them with kindness and respect.

Cats, chickens, and dogs (not pictured) live harmoniously together on my Aunt’s property, situated just a short drive from Columbus, Ohio.

Do Christians Believe that Pets Go to Heaven?

Before answering this question, it is important to address society’s view of heaven compared to how it is described in the Bible. The idea of heaven being a magical place in the clouds people go to after death does not have much biblical support. Instead, when the Bible mentions heaven or salvation, it is more of a reconciliation between God’s kingdom and the earth. Many Christians may have different views of heaven, and thus there is no one consensus about what heaven is and who goes to it. So, maybe a better question to ask is not “do pets go to heaven?” but “can pets receive salvation?”

Although the Bible teaches to care for animals, it does not give a definite answer to this question. In the case of pets in particular, it still up for debate among Christians today. Many believe that pets can be saved, whereas others believe that salvation is reserved for humans. In Christian theology, there is evidence to support both positions. A verse from Psalm 36 reads “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O Lord.”  The choice of the word “saved” in the verse could indicate that animals have the same ability to receive salvation, or go to heaven, as humans, but it can also be interpreted merely as God caring for these animals and treating them with kindness. In The Grace of Dogs, a novel written by a Christian theologian about both his personal spiritual experiences with his own dogs, as well as people’s overall experiences with them, Andrew Root argues that dogs are significantly more than just mindless, instinctual creatures, and devotes an entire chapter to the question of whether or not pets go to heaven. He ultimately decides that pets do go to heaven, but not before a long studious journey in which he explores the scientific and theological works of many people who study animals and their behavior (Root, 2017). Another Christian perspective provided by Garrett Kell from thegospelcoaltion.org is that we cannot be completely sure if our pets can achieve salvation, as Jesus died for only human sins, but there are verses in the Bible that seem to describe animals in heaven, so it is certainly possible (Kell, 2017). There are still others who are staunchly against the idea of animals being saved, not because of their distaste for them, but simply because they believe the Bible indicates that eternal salvation is solely for humans because humans alone can take the proper steps to be saved (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 2021). Clearly this is not an easily answered question but being aware of the different perspectives can help one to form one’s own beliefs about where their pets go after they pass.

A photo I took while staying in Olympic National Park in Washington. The setting sun casts a heavenly glow onto the trees and ocean water.

A Look at the Differences Between Christian and Buddhist Values of Pets

Although a majority of Americans are Christian, it is important to look at other religious perspectives on pets to get a more well-rounded idea of their spiritual relationship to us. Like Christians, Buddhists have a love and respect for animals that comes from many of their teachings. A notable idea present in the Buddhist faith is the belief that animals have consciousness, which is not a material thing, meaning it continues on after the body dies (Michie, 2017). Since animals have consciousness, this consciousness is able to reach enlightenment. This could be thought of as similar to the Christian idea of an animal soul, (which some Christians believe animals have; others do not). Also, the Buddhist word “Bodhicitta” means the desire to obtain enlightenment inspired by a love and compassion for all animals (Michie, 2017). Buddhists vow to do no harm to living creatures, and thus this applies to their relationship with pets as well. Although there may be very obvious differences in the religious teachings of Christianity and Buddhism, they tend to have the same general themes. Both religions believe humans have an obligation to treat animals with dignity and respect, both value traits like kindness and generosity, and both seem to be supportive of having pets, as long as they are treated with dignity and grace.

Answering Some of Life’s Tough Questions Regarding Our Pets

Now, with respect in mind, there are many difficult questions to be asked regarding our pets. What do Christianity and Buddhism teach about these difficult questions? We can begin with the question of humane euthanasia, as this is one many of us have been forced to ask ourselves during our lives. Among Christians and Buddhists, there is no one correct answer to this question. In The Grace of Dogs, the author euthanatizes his dog when it is dying from a tumor, as he believes it is the only thing that can truly end his suffering. Similarly, in an article titled “A Life in Her Hands” a Buddhist woman named Sallie Tisdale makes the difficult decision to euthanize her dog (Tisdale, 2020). She talks about her struggle with the idea of euthanizing her pets, as she knows that as a Buddhist, she has committed to not causing harm. In the case of her dog with multiple chronic issues, she believes she is causing more harm by forcing him to continue suffering, therefore decides that euthanasia is the right choice. These are just two religious perspectives on the difficult topic of euthanasia, but many others, even among Christians and Buddhists, would disagree. Some Buddhists believe that their pledge to do no harm completely prevents them from euthanizing their pets, and since beginning work in the veterinary field, I have seen and heard many stories of Christians unwilling to euthanize their animals because they believe God will take them when it is their time.

What about the question of giving our pets all the freedoms they desire, such as the ability to go outside, hunt, and eat whatever they please? Some would say it is cruel to keep a cat or dog indoors when they want to be out in nature, but others would disagree. According to the book Buddhism for Pet Lovers, it is right to help pets to not do harm, even if it upsets them (Michie, 2017). In the case of cats and dogs bred to hunt in particular, if they are allowed to roam free, they can kill or maim other animals, so this Buddhist perspective would argue that it is our duty to prevent them from doing this. One Christian perspective may argue that since it is our job to care for animals, as God said to Adam in Genesis, then we are justified in not allowing them to roam free and do everything they desire, if we are doing it to protect them or others from harm. A Christian hunter may disagree with this point, however, saying that it is quite natural for animals to roam free and hunt, and that it should be allowed and possibly even encouraged, as long as they are not hunting endangered species of animals. As Dr. Jim Tantillo (2021) said in his lecture on the ethics of hunting, to many humans, hunting is more than just a sport. In the case of animals, whose natural instinct is to hunt, how can those who believe hunting is ethical take this natural ability away from their pets?

A final difficult question is whether it is our responsibility to adopt animals from shelters instead of purchasing them from breeders. This is another question without a definitive answer from either Christian or Buddhist philosophy, but through both Buddhist and Christian teachings, we can shed some light on the subject. We have learned from both religions that humans have a responsibility to be kind to, and take care of, animals. I believe this means that humans should greatly consider helping shelter animals, even if they are unable to adopt them. In some cases, it may be significantly better for a family to purchase a pet from a responsible, professional breeder – many shelter pets can make great companions, but sometimes they do require more care and a more experienced owner. If a person is not ready for this responsibility, they are not being a good steward by adopting a shelter pet and may actually cause more harm than good. Other ways humans can help shelter animals besides adoption include volunteering, donating, and even re-posting information about local shelters on social media. However, if you feel as though you are well-prepared, bringing a shelter pet into your home can be one of the most rewarding experiences life has to offer. All of my pets have been either adopted from shelters or found living on the street, and I plan on adopting shelter pets for the rest of my life.

With this idea of being good caretakers of animals in mind, it should be understood that it is never responsible to purchase an animal from a puppy mill or unprofessional breeder. It is also irresponsible to allow your pet to roam freely without getting it spayed or neutered, as this often leads to more pets without safe homes to grow up in. Our role as caretakers for our pets means that we have the responsibility of ensuring that we are not contributing to more animal suffering through our behavior. Buying an animal simply for aesthetic reasons and not being cognizant of its well-being goes against both Buddhist and Christian teaching and is an example of how selfishness can be a direct cause of others’ suffering.

This idea leads into the issue of America’s culture of consumption and how it affects our pets. Many animals are bought simply for aesthetic reasons and are then discarded once they’ve grown out of their cute baby stage. Obviously, this is detrimental for the animal, but it can also be very detrimental to natural ecosystems. There are many examples of former pets that were set free by their careless owners wreaking havoc on natural ecosystems, including feral cats decimating endangered animal populations in Australia and Burmese Pythons altering the natural ecosystem of the Florida Everglades.

Because pets are living, sentient beings, it is incredibly important that we treat them as such. Both Buddhist and Christian thinking would strongly disagree with owning an animal purely for selfish reasons, and not caring for it if it did not look or behave the way you wanted. As we have learned from multiple philosophers studied in class, as we focus less on the self, this need for the newest, best thing will fade. This would help to reduce the issue of discarded animals as well, as being less focused on ourselves will help us to see other animals as sentient, important beings and value their presence in our lives and in the world.

            In his book Visions of Virtue in Popular Film (1990), Joseph Kupfer argues that a virtuous life, as opposed to a selfish one full of superficial pleasures, leads to true happiness. In his chapter titled Virtue and Happiness in Groundhog Day, he illustrates that as the movie’s main character, Phil, goes from living a pleasure-seeking life to one of virtue in which he helps those around him. Through this, his life, as well as the lives of his friends and neighbors, is significantly improved. This idea of living a virtuous life is central to many religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, and can be applied to how we think of our pets as well. As we have seen, it may not be possible to answer all of life’s tough questions regarding pets purely by reading religious texts, but by doing our best to lead virtuous lives, we naturally help those around us, including our pets, and are therefore able to make decisions beneficial for their health and happiness. In many ways, our pets can actually help us to live virtuously, as needing to take care of them naturally causes us to think of another being besides ourselves.

A photo of my dog, Donovan, in a park in my hometown near Cleveland, Ohio. The park is on the shore of Lake Erie, and Donovan loves to go there to play in the sand.

Conclusion

The teachings central to both Christianity and Buddhism give us a clear path as to how we should treat our pets. In Christianity, God calls humans to be respectful caretakers of all animals; in Buddhism, the guiding principle of do no harm means that humans should always be considerate of and help animals, and never purposefully cause them any pain or suffering. Similar sentiments have been expressed in many other religions as well.[2]

Although there may still be disagreements on the correct ways to deal with difficult questions like euthanasia and free roaming, even among people in the same religion, the guiding principles of many religions that encourage their followers to lead good, virtuous lives, naturally encourage them to be good caretakers for their pets as well, and thus help them to make life’s difficult decisions a bit easier.

In the case of my first pet, T.T., it was not so much that I had to make difficult decisions regarding him, as I was very young when he was alive, but that he himself taught me how to live virtuously, with his patience and love for the simple things in life. I know this is a sentiment shared by many pet owners, as pets are often perfect examples of how to live unselfishly and be happy with what you have – I myself know of many dogs who are perfectly content with no more possessions than a soft bed and one or two tennis balls. Just as our role in the world is to be good caretakers of others, maybe the role of our pets is to teach us how to live virtuous, loving lives so that we can better fulfill our purposes. They certainly lead by example.

My kitten, Egwene, who lives with me in my apartment in Columbus, taking a much-needed nap after a long day of play.

References

American Veterinary Medical Association. (2021). U.S. Pet Ownership Statistics. AVMA. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/reports-statistics/us-pet-ownership-statistics

English Standard Version Bible. (2001). ESV Online. https://esv.literalword.com/

Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. (2021). Do Animal Go To Heaven? Jehovah’s Witnesses. https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/do-animals-go-to-heaven/

Kell, G. (May 19, 2017). What Happens to Our Pets When They Die? The Gospel Coalition. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-happens-to-pets-when-they-die/

Kupfer, J. (1999). “Virtue and Happiness in Groundhog Day.” In Visions of Virtue in Popular Film. Westview Press, 35-60.

Islamic Council of Victoria. (2019). What is Halal? A Guide for Non-Muslims. https://www.icv.org.au/about/about-islam-overview/what-is-halal-a-guide-for-non-muslims/

Michie, D. (2017). Buddhism for Pet Lovers: Supporting our closest companions through life and death. Conch Books.

Orthodox Union. (2021). Kosher Food: The Kosher Primer. U Kosher. https://oukosher.org/the-kosher-primer/

Root, A. (2017). The Grace of Dogs: A boy, a black lab, and a father’s search for the canine soul. Convergent Books.

Tantillo, J. (2021, March 29). The Ethics of Hunting [Lecture Recording]. Carmen Zoom. https://osu.zoom.us/rec/play/7Jj0zX_Whu-PTWCbLc1zvY0iS6-xCIDj73OpKrJEXKrqEvWSTD6ba52I8oH5ZdRu6–AFDXeKAWp82MQ.0fX3OtwwtkA7qCdW?continueMode=true&_x_zm_rtaid=HOGK1S2HR_6xnfr–KChkw.1619380329086.41435fb4c53dd957ff8515f590b308d2&_x_zm_rhtaid=988

Tisdale, S. (2020). A Life in Her Hands. Tricycle. https://tricycle.org/magazine/buddhism-and-  pet-euthanasia/


  1. In this section, many of the Bible verses that have been selected come from the Old Testament, which means they can apply to Judaism just as much as Christianity. I chose to focus on Christianity in my writing because it has had a large influence in my life, but the connection between Jewish values and our pets could also certainly be explored, and these values may in fact be quite similar to those of Christians. It would be interesting to delve deeper into the similarities and differences between the two.
  2. Two of the most well-known examples of religious practices that emphasize the value of the life of an animal are Kosher and Halal slaughter - Kosher being the Jewish dietary law, and Halal the Islamic. In both Kosher and Halal slaughter, much care is taken to ensure that the animal being slaughtered experiences minimal suffering and a quick death, as their lives are considered valuable. For more information on Kosher and Halal slaughter, as well as other dietary rules, visit these websites: https://oukosher.org/the-kosher-primer/ and https://www.icv.org.au/about/about-islam-overview/what-is-halal-a-guide-for-non-muslims/. It should be noted that not all those who practice Judaism or Islam adhere to all of these guidelines.