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:
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.
Can I give my dog a bark mitzvah?
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.
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.