It is estimated that there are 70 million dogs in American homes today, in addition to millions of other animals Americans have taken into their hearts like members of their families. These pets are our companions and friends, and though they are not human beings, their significance cannot be underestimated in the lives of those who love them.
As a dog-lover myself, I understand the depth of connection and love that we can experience with a pet, as if souls are touching souls, and hearts are touching hearts, sweetly, purely, singularly, constantly, and joyfully. Therefore, when a beloved pet dies, I understand the sadness and grief that comes with the loss.
Last week a member of my congregation had to “put down” his very sick cancerous dog of 14 years, and he was devastated. He came to Shabbat services and asked me if it was appropriate for him to say the Mourner’s Kaddish publicly for his dog. This is how he described that unique relationship in his life:
“He was not only my friend and companion; my dog was an integral part of my family and, at times, my only family. When I first saw him in his litter, he was the puppy who got the most excited and wanted to come home with me. He was like a child, and I always felt that he looked at me not only as his master and caretaker, but as a parent. He trusted me as a puppy, as a dog in his prime, and in his last months when he suffered most from his cancer. Putting him down was extremely difficult, and I mourn him deeply.”
Please understand what I am about to say, especially if you have a relationship with a pet like my congregant’s relationship with his dog. Pets are not human beings. They are not our “children.” Yes, they are companions and dear to us (as my dog is to me), but there obviously are significant distinctions between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom.
Judaism places high value on the compassionate treatment of animals. Beginning in Genesis, tradition affirms that animals, like humans, have a “soul” (i.e. nefesh chayah) though they lack a “higher soul” (i.e. n’shamah). In the Talmud there is a category of law called Tzaar Baalei Chayim (“Concerning the suffering of living creatures”) the main focus of which is to prevent the suffering of animals and to treat them kindly and with dignity and respect.
Understanding that many of us feel strongly about our pets and some feel more connected with their pets than they do with people, the Mourner’s Kaddish is meant to be said in memory of human beings, not animals. To say Kaddish out loud the way we would for a deceased parent, spouse, sibling, or child blurs distinctions between us and the rest of creation and is not a Jewish response no matter how liberal we may be.
And so I gently told my congregant that it is inappropriate to say Kaddish publicly for his dog. If he wishes to remember his dog when Kaddish is said, he should do so, but privately.
That being said, people whose pets die have a legitimate need to mourn and grieve their loss. There are many appropriate ways of doing this. Mourners can arrange for burial of their pet in a pet cemetery. Friends and family should reach out with sensitivity and love to mourners. Mourners might contribute charity to shelters that sustain animals until owners can be found, or contribute to organizations that advocate on behalf of the humane treatment of animals.
To my friend, I expressed my sorrow and understanding.