Do Pets Go to Heaven?
“If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty
and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans. You’ve nothing
to worry about there.”
–British author and veterinarian James Herriot, addressing whether or not animals have souls and could experience an afterlife.
If you have ever suffered the loss of a beloved pet, you
might have wondered at some point if you would ever meet up with your close
friend again. You are not alone with such thoughts. One of the most frequently asked
questions online is, “Do pets go to heaven?” Heaven and the afterlife are primarily religious concepts, and many of the world’s religions do provide answers.
(The Peaceable Kingdom, painting by Edward Hicks; Credit Wikimedia Commons)
Christianity holds that every living being, from the tiniest
insect to the largest whale, has a chance at entering the pearly gates. Psalm
145:-9-10,13,15-21 reads, “God loves all His creation and has made plans
for all His children and the lesser creatures to enjoy His eternal Kingdom.”
Don’t expect to see your favorite individual plant in heaven, however. That’s because
the Book of Genesis suggests all animals have souls, but plants do not. Genesis
1:30: “To every animal of the earth, and to every bird of the heavens and to
every creeping thing on the earth, in which is a living soul, every green plant
is given for food.”
According to Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Har Shalom in New Jersey, the attitude of Judaism towards the afterlife might be summed up as, “We
really do not know, but if there is a life after this one, and a reward for
what we do, then surely it will be dependent upon the kind of life we have
lived — therefore, let us strive to follow God's path for us as closely and as
enthusiastically as possible, for then we will surely know all manner of
rewards, especially the one of seeing a world that is a better place for our
efforts.” Religious texts hold that Yahweh, the god of Israel, did bestow the breath of life into the
animals that flourished in the Garden of Eden, suggesting that each non-human animal too can
become nephesh, or a “living soul.”
(The Garden of Eden; Credit: The Yorck Project)
Islam, however, takes a different view. As Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad explained at The London Mosque, “Every animal does not have options
to do good deeds and bad deeds, so there is no examination for them. Their
souls are not preserved, moreover, they are not fully developed and mature,
because what is soul, after all, without consciousness.”
Buddhists regard animals as sentient beings capable of
According to the Mahayana school, animals possess what is known as “Buddha
nature,” and may then become enlightened similar to the way that humans
can within this belief system. Nevertheless, animals are thought to inhabit a distinct “world,” called
Tiryagyoni in Sanskrit, which is separated from humans not by space, but by a
state of mind. The doctrine of rebirth additionally holds that any human can
be reborn as an animal, and any animal may be reborn as a human, reinforcing
the inter-connectivity of all life.
(Buddhist Shrine with Animals; Credit: Mattes)
Archaeological finds show that, before these and other more
modern religions emerged, numerous ancient societies also believed in
an all-inclusive afterlife. Mummified dogs, cats and other animals, for
example, are frequently found in early Egyptian tombs. If a master died, it’s
thought that his or her pets, not to mention servants, were killed in order
that they could all remain together in the afterlife.
Lifespan was generally
shorter in those days, so sacrificing a short time on Earth for the sake of an
eternal existence must have seemed worthwhile.
(Cat Mummy Mask; Credit: Jon Bodsworth)
A phenomenon that has been studied by both religious
scholars and scientists is “near death experience.” Many people who have come
close to death have reported seeing a bright light, moving down a tunnel,
reliving memories (including ones involving pets), and feeling as though they
were outside of their own body, watching themselves.
Kevin Nelson and a research team at the University of Kentucky analyzed data on over 13,000 Europeans and found that almost 6 percent
had experienced such an out-of-body experience.
Nelson and his colleagues suspect
that this occurs in the brain’s arousal system, which regulates different
states of consciousness, including REM sleep and wakefulness. "We found it
surprising that out-of-body experience with sleep transition seemed very much
like out-of-body experience during near death," Nelson said. While no
research, to my knowledge, has yet proved that non-human animals also have
these experiences, my guess is it’s possible, due to brain structure similarities.
Beyond such out-of-body experiences, if you really want to
have a mind-blowing moment, and be fully with it at the time, investigate a
physics concept called string theory. Some individuals who work in this field
envision our universe as having at least nine spatial dimensions, six of which
they think are hidden and undetectable from us. The reality we experience, according
to this view, happens to consist of three dimensions.
(Different levels of magnification of matter, ending with the string
level; Credit: MissMJ)
Andreas Karch, a University of Washington assistant
professor of physics, and Lisa Randall, a physics professor at Harvard, modeled
how the universe was arranged right after the big bang. To make an extremely
long story short, they believe the math points to other realities, either
three- or seven-dimensional, which could be hidden from our perception in the
universe, Karch said, "There are regions that feel 3D. There are regions
that feel 5D. There are regions that feel 9D. These extra dimensions are
infinitely large. We just happen to be in a place that feels 3D to us.”
In terms of physical evidence, Fido’s bodily remains may
literally push up daisies, but the story is more complicated than that. A few
years ago I spoke with Rene Severijnen, a pediatric surgeon at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands, and with Ger Bongaerts, a biochemist and microbiologist also at Radboud. They believe there may be a
state of being between life and death, “best defined as ‘resting life,’” Severijnen said.
Additionally, the basic building blocks of all
life—atoms—don’t normally die at all. "The death of an atom means that
matter is converted to energy," according to Bongaerts. "This happens
during an explosion of a nuclear fusion bomb."
(Atom; Credit: Cburnett)
Although growth, metabolism and other bodily processes stop as soon as the
body dies, "the degradation processes go on and may even
increase" In the end, he says, all the complex compounds are degraded
again to the smallest compounds, such as water, carbon dioxide and ammonia.
These compounds may then fuel other organisms, and never die at all.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As you can see, religion, physics, chemistry and other
disciplines address the big questions, such as “Do pets go to heaven?” from
slightly different angles. All offer hope that there is meaning, order and
significance to life, and therefore death.
Faith and belief also hold their own power over us, which has been demonstrated in many scientific studies. When British veterinarian and author James Herriot, known for his All
Creatures Great and Small stories, was asked if animals join their human friends
in an afterlife, he replied, “I do believe it. With all my heart I believe it.”