Purchasing or rescuing a sweet little puppy is a day of adulation. The kids have been begging for a dog for months, and even you look forward to the idea of snuggling up with a pup or having him fetch the newspaper in the morning.
But if you are a Torah observant Jew, as a pet owner, you’ll be regularly confronted with a wide variety of halachic issues. The first one, of course, is whether you should even own him.
There are many contradictory texts when it comes to owning a dog, explained Rabbi Howard Jachter, a prominent rabbi on the Rabbinical Council of America. Rabbi Jachter penned “Halachic Perspectives on Pets” for the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society in 1992. Those texts are for (or against) dog ownership for various reasons.
Rabbi Jachter said that most mainstream Jews hold by the “Shulchan Aruch,” the code of Jewish law. In there, it talks about Jews not being allowed to own “an evil dog.” He said that by evil, the text means either a dog that bites or barks loudly.
“If a dog is not a nuisance, the mainstream sources permit ownership,” said Rabbi Jachter.
“True,” he said, noting there is not a definitive list of acceptable dogs. He said dogs that are used for medical purposes (such as seeing eye dogs) or are necessary for companionship for the elderly are always permitted.
“Like everything else in life, good judgment goes a long way,” he said.
Assuming there’s a green light on your dog, kashrut comes into play. According to Rabbi Zvi Goldberg, kashrus administrator for the Star-K, you can feed your dog non-kosher food with no problem.
“Pets have no halachas. They didn’t get the Torah at Sinai; they don’t have to keep any rules at all,” Rabbi Goldberg said.
Well, sort of.
You can’t feed pets milk and meat mixed together or chametz on Pesach. There is a prohibition against a Jew deriving benefit from kosher meat and milk being mixed together. Read the label, said Rabbi Goldberg, and make sure the food does not contain beef and milk from a kosher species. Ingredients to watch for: whey and casein, both which are milk derivatives.
It’s that same prohibition of enjoyment/benefit that affects Pesach. Owners are not allowed to feed animals anything with leavened grains in it on the holiday. Of course, while many Ashkenazim will not eat kitniyot on Passover, their dogs may do so.
Rabbi Goldberg said the Star-K website has a list of acceptable dog foods for Pesach. Those foods are also acceptable throughout the year and contain no milk and meat mixtures.
Another issue: Shabbat.
“That’s tricky,” said Rabbi Jachter. “The most complicated one is trapping. You are not allowed to trap your animal.”
Who is going to do that anyway? Well, said the rabbi, it depends if you understand what it means to trap.
“If you have a frisky dog, the kind that if you open the door it will run out, by opening and closing the door to your home you are trapping the animal,” he explained. “You would have to walk into your home in such a way that it was always trapped.”
Huh? He said open the door only slightly, fill the gap between the door and the wall, and close the door immediately.
And while you’re squeezing through, be sure not to pet the pooch.
“The majority of opinions say you cannot pet an animal on Shabbat,” Rabbi Jachter said.
Another little known halachic challenge: spaying and neutering your dog.
“Neutering is generally forbidden, and one needs to speak to his rabbi about it,” said Rabbi Jachter, noting that some rabbis recommend giving the dog birth control shots.
Jon Kaplan of Pikesville is observant and owns a big dog named Buster. Kaplan said he was not religious when they purchased the mutt, and they made the decision to do so based on “growing up with dogs.”
“Dogs give you so much affection, and there is just this bonding,” said Kaplan.
But most importantly, Kaplan thinks owning a dog is a good religious lesson for his children, ages 10 and 7.
“I think it teaches them responsibility,” said Kaplan.
Rabbis Jachter and Goldberg think so, too.
Rabbi Jachter said animals teach children compassion, kindness and responsibility. Having a dog to care for can help them learn how to care for other people.
Of course, there are laws about caring for animals, too.
“Besides from just feeding [the dogs] acceptable foods, it is a halacha that you have to feed your pets before you eat,” explained Rabbi Goldberg. “Your animals have to be taken care of before you are taken care of.”
The concept of caring for one’s animals is known as Tsar ba’alei chayim and is noted in the Torah. One of Adam’s first responsibilities as a human being is to name the animals. Judaism places great stress on proper treatment of animals. Unnecessary cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden, and in many cases, animals are accorded the same sensitivity as human beings.
The laws relate not only to feeding animals first, but also to ritual slaughter; we are not permitted to kill an animal on the same day as its young and are commanded to send away a mother bird when taking the eggs because of the psychological distress it would cause the mother.
And there are others, too. Said Rabbi Jachter, it is a big responsibility.
“People need to weigh carefully whether it is a positive or negative thing to own an animal,” he said. “I don’t own one, but I have many family members who do.”
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Source: “The Perfect Puppy: How to Choose Your Dog by Its Behavior” by Benjamin and Lynette Hart