According to polling data, between 50 and 70 percent of American households contain a pet. Presumably, this includes Jewish homes as well, which leads us to the question of Jewish law and tradition. In this article, we will explore some of the most frequently asked questions regarding Judaism and pet ownership.

May Jews own pets?

For a host of cultural reasons, anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish homes did not often include pet dogs (although cats were more commonly kept, to keep mice at bay).

One reason for this may be that pets are generally non-kosher animals, and there is a preference for seeing kosher images to whatever degree possible.

Thus Orthodox pet ownership is less common, and pet owners in Orthodox neighborhoods may find themselves doing a lot of explaining.

However, there is no Jewish law or tradition precluding pet ownership per se.

Read: Why Are People Afraid of Dogs

How about dangerous animals?

It is indeed forbidden to keep dangerous pets, such as a dog that bites (or even one who barks and frightens people), unless they are properly restrained. The Talmud and subsequent texts discuss what allowances may be made for security and what precautions are still necessary.1

Read: Guard Your Life

Is it OK to own a pig?

The Talmud tells us that there is an ancient curse placed on anyone who raises pigs. This happened after enemies besieging Jerusalem sent in a pig instead of the usual kosher animals that were allowed into the city to be sacrificed on the altar.2

So although pigs make for intelligent and trainable pets, they are not right for Jewish homes.

Read: May a Jew Raise Swine?

How about neutering or spaying?

The gift of life is sacred. It is written “... in your land you shall not make” damage to an animal’s reproductive organs.3 It is, however, OK to purchase an animal that has already been fixed by a non-Jewish vet.4

Read: 9 Ways Judaism Teaches Us Kindness to Animals

Is it true that you need to feed animals before you eat?

In the Shema, we are assured that G‑d will “give grass in the field for your cattle, and you will eat and be sated.5 From here the sages infer that we, too, must make sure that our animals have food before we sit down to breakfast.6

Read: Do I Need to Feed My Dog Before Eating?

How about caring for pets on Shabbat?

There are indeed several issues pet owners need to be aware of regarding Shabbat:

  • Trapping” is one of the 39 acts (melachot) forbidden on Shabbat. If your animal is prone to running away, then closing the door or window to prevent its flight may be a form of trapping.
  • It is permitted to walk your animal even outside of an eruv, provided that it is clear that you are walking your dog, not carrying the leash. This is accomplished by keeping the animals close to you, not letting the leash sag to within a handbreadth of the ground, and not letting a handbreadth of leash dangle from your hand. Carrying a bag for waste outside an eruv would also be an issue.
  • A conventional reading of Jewish law puts animals in the category of muktzeh, items that may not be handled on Shabbat. It has been argued, however, that household pets are not included in the category of muktzah at all, because they have an “immediate practical use.”7

    Read: How Does Shabbat Affect Pet Owners?

    Anything to know about the firstborn animals?

    Redeeming the firstborn donkey, joyously carried out in Moshav Ahi'ezer near Lod on June 26, 2018. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90
    Redeeming the firstborn donkey, joyously carried out in Moshav Ahi'ezer near Lod on June 26, 2018. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90

    We are told in the Torah that the firstborn of any kosher flock is holy and must be given to a Kohen (priest), who would consume it as a sacrifice in the Holy Temple. There is also a similar sacredness for the firstborn donkey, which must be exchanged for a sheep, which is then sacrificed. Nowadays, since there is no Holy Temple, firstborns cannot be sacrificed but must be allowed to graze until they become disqualified from being sacrificed due to physical blemishes. If you are raising kosher livestock or donkeys, consult your rabbi on the specifics of how this is to be carried out.

    There is nothing special about firstborn cats, dogs, hamsters, gerbils or goldfish.

    Read: Of All Animals, Why Is the Firstborn Donkey Holy?

    Does my animal need to keep kosher?

    Assuming that you are not preparing your animal’s meals in your kosher kitchen with your kosher dishes, your animal is free to enjoy horse meat or other non kosher foods. An exception8 to this rule would be a cooked mixture of milk and meat, from which we may not benefit and are therefore not even allowed to feed our pets. This applies only to the meat of kosher land species. One may feed their pets milk cooked together with the meat of non-kosher animals or even kosher birds (such as chicken), as well as meat of a kosher animal that has been mixed but not cooked with milk,9 taking care, of course, not to get it on their kosher dishes.

    Read: Do I Need to Feed My Cat Kosher?

    Read: 22 Kosher Facts Every Jew Should Know

    What can I feed my pets on Passover?

    Passover can be tricky, since we may not benefit from chametz on Passover. The ingredients of various animal foods are different, so consult the most recent guides published by your local kosher supervisory agency to find out what’s OK each year.

    Note that kitniyot (beans, legumes, corn, etc.) may be fed to our pets, even by Ashkenazim who do not eat these foods on Passover.

    Read: What Is Kosher for Passover

    Must a Jewish-owned pet fast on Yom Kippur?

    Art by Rivka Korf Studio
    Art by Rivka Korf Studio

    We read on Yom Kippur afternoon how Jonah inspired the residents of Ninveh to fast and repent. In that case, as decreed by the king, both people and livestock refrained from eating and drinking.10 This, however, is not the Jewish way. On Jewish fast days, only Jewish adults (and children who are up to the task) are obligated to fast.

    This does not include pets. In fact, in some instances, not feeding your pet would constitute tzaar baalei chayim, causing unnecessary pain to an animal, which is forbidden (see below).

    Read: At What Age Is a Child Old Enoughto Fast?

    What does Torah say about causing animals pain?

    The Torah has several precepts relating to not causing animals unnecessary pain (tzaar baalei chayim), including the requirement to assist a struggling pack animal.11

    Now, when there is reasonable purpose for humans, Judaism does allow causing an animal discomfort. Thus, we slaughter animals to eat their meat, use their hides, and other purposes. However, plucking feathers from a living goose is sadistic and forbidden, even though those feathers will be used, since you can easily obtain feathers from animals that are no longer alive.12

    Read: Is Animal Testing Kosher?

    May we put our elderly pets to sleep?

    Since ending the life of an animal is permitted and causing pain to an animal is forbidden, euthanasia is a fine, humane option to consider when an animal is nearing the end of its life and is suffering.

    Read: What Gives Us the Right to Kill Animals?

    Do pets go to heaven?

    On a most simple level, heaven is a reward for good behavior and compensation for suffering endured here on earth. Since the Middle Ages, the Jewish sages have debated whether reward and punishment applies to animals.

    Since no one on our staff can recall going to heaven and back, we cannot tell you for certain whether there is a doggie kennel there. But we do have a great article that cites the classic approaches to this issue:

    Read: Do Dogs Go to Heaven

    Is there a Jewish tradition about animal funerals?

    It is interesting to note that Judaism records an instance of animals themselves burying their dead. After Cain killed Abel, he wondered what to do with the body. Observing birds burying a fellow bird, he decided to do the same.13

    However, the mitzvah to bury the dead is unique to humans. As G‑d told Adam, “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”14 It stands to reason that this is unique to humans, whom G‑d fashioned from dust.15

    Read: What to Expect at a Jewish Funeral

    What to say when a pet dies?

    When a person’s animal dies, the proper response is hamakom yemale lecha chisronecha, “May the Omnipresent fill your void.”16

    Can I say Kaddish for my departed pet?

    Art by Rivka Korf Studio
    Art by Rivka Korf Studio

    Our pets are a major part of our lives. However, there is no precedent in Jewish tradition for saying Kaddish for our pets.

    Read: A Prayer for My Deceased Pet?

    Read: 16 Kaddish Facts Every Jew Should Know

    Can my (well behaved) pet attend shul with me?

    There is little direct discussion of the permissibility of bringing pets into the synagogue from the Talmudic sages. The reason is obvious: In those days, animals were not used as pets.

    Now, synagogues are a place for people (not animals) to pray. So your pet has no reason to attend, as far as it is concerned. However, if your attendance depends on your pet being there with you (as discussed below regarding support animals), there may be room for exception, and the final ruling would depend on the determination made by the community rabbi.

    Read: Can I Bring My Support Animal or Guide Dog Into Synagogue?

    How about bringing service animals to synagogue services?

    In the mid-20th century, debate broke out regarding the permissibility of blind people bringing service dogs into the sanctuary. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a preeminent halachic authority in the US, allowed it,17 and Rabbi Menachem Kasher, a scholar in Israel, prohibited it.18

    In an exchange of letters with Rabbi Kasher, the Rebbe defended Rabbi Feinstein’s opinion, arguing that they should surely be allowed, as facilitating synagogue attendance for blind people is a worthy cause, and leniencies should be sought.

    Read: The Rebbe on Allowing Service Dogs in Synagogue