PETS—GOOD FOR MIND AND SOUL

On the fifth day God created the animals. Adam was given the task of naming each of the one.   When God decided to destroy the world by bringing a huge flood, Noah was instructed to take his family and two of every animal onto the ark to save the species.

In Jewish law, animals have many of the same rights as humans. Animals rest on the Sabbath, as humans do. We are forbidden to muzzle an ox while it is working in the field, just as we must allow human workers to eat from the produce they are harvesting. Several commandments demonstrate concern for the physical or psychological suffering of animals. We may not plough using animals of different strengths. We are required to relieve an animal of its burden. We are not permitted to kill an animal on the same day as its young, and we are specifically commanded to send away the mother bird when taking her eggs. The Bible promises long life for observing this commandment, precisely the same reward that is promised for honoring parents.  For those who have pets, a rabbinic law states that one must always feed one’s pet before feeding oneself.

A few years ago, I devoted a year to writing Do Animals Have Souls?:  A Pet Lover’s Guide to Jewish Spirituality.  I was pleasantly surprised by the level of interest in the book.  Written in question-and-answer form (questions came from members of my congregation and my Ask the Rabbi website), topics included: whether animals should be used for medical research, if it is proper to attend a bullfight, if it is proper to hold a Bark Mitzvah for a 13-year-old dog, the appropriateness of reciting the Mourner’s prayer for a deceased pet, and whether animals have souls.  

Jewish law does not prohibit keeping pets. My parents got me my first dog when I was five years old. Throughout our 51 years of marriage our family has had several dogs, each of whom provided unconditional love and nonjudgmental support. In recent years, because our dogs have had such a calming and comforting effect, we have named them after anti-depressant drugs.  One golden retriever was named Zoe (short for Zoloft), another Lexi (short for Celexa), and now Reba (short for Reboxetine).  In my work as a music therapist, I often encountered the therapy dogs who regularly visited the nursing home residents.  Observing the solace they brought to the residents, I acquired a very life-like mechanical therapy cat and brought it to my sessions.  I was gratified to see how the residents were soothed by stroking and talking to it.   

I recently read an article in the New York Times by Catherine Pearson about “The Calming Power of Therapy Dogs.” She cited a study that found that twice-weekly sessions with a dog and its handler significantly lowered children’s levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, and appeared to be more effective than guided relaxation sessions. Researchers and mental health professionals say there is a real need for more research into how animal-assisted interventions of all kinds can help children. There has also been research that demonstrates that household pets (non-therapy ones) provide comfort and support to family members.

By creating the animals God truly gave humanity a great gift and source of calm and support for our minds and souls.

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