Three quarters of pet-owning Christians (75%) in the US have dogs, while less than half (43%) possess cats.
That’s according to a Pew Research Center report released this summer. In religious breakouts provided to CT, figures showed that twice as many Christian pet owners (53%) only own dogs while less than a quarter (21%) exclusively own cats. About 1 in 5 (22%) own both. The numbers track with what veterinarian Nancy Moore has observed anecdotally at Christian vet conferences.
“It’s pretty rare, [but] we do get occasional cats,” said Moore, who serves as the southeast region representative for the Christian Veterinary Mission. “I think that the human wants the cat out [and about], but I don’t know if the cat agrees with the human. Cats aren’t notoriously well known for wanting to go into strange places.”
In her own life, Moore is on “Team Cat” (she owns three of them). While she’s thought about being a dog-owner, her busy travel life inhibits that.
Dogs have a constant desire for social company, she said. That requires a special kind of attention. Yet Moore also explained that the dog’s more extroverted nature can reflect that of the church: a culture of life together.
A 2019 report examining how religion predicts pet ownership found that those who attend religious services more often had a higher likelihood of owning fewer pets. Theological affiliation or belief, however, had little to do with pet ownership.
Churchgoers were less likely to own cats, the study showed. However, there was little association between worship attendance and dog ownership.
“On the one hand, certain personality types might simultaneously attract some Americans toward religious participation and away from pets, and cats in particular,” stated the report’s authors, sociologists Samuel Perry and Ryan Burge.
“Alternatively, to the extent that pet ownership is a partial substitute for human bonding and interaction, Americans more deeply embedded within a religious community may have less need (or time) for pets generally, and specifically more independent ‘roommate pets,’ like cats.”
Regardless of what compels Christian pet owners to adopt their feline friends, “Cats Need No Justification” was the argument and headline of one 1988 piece from former CT editor Mary Stewart van Leeuwen.
The annual cost of feeding, vaccinating, and sometimes transporting three cats is still not trivial. I once heard someone assert that it was immoral for Christians to lavish food and care on pets when so many human beings were physically and emotionally starved. … C. S. Lewis would have disagreed. He was certain that animals have more than just a utilitarian function for people.
Some might be under the impression, however, that cats only have utilitarian functions for people. Cats are more likely to keep to themselves throughout the day, only to later come out of nowhere to demand something, says Moore.
“There’s a joke in veterinary medicine: ‘Dogs have masters and cats have servants,’” she said.
Many Christian pet owners go beyond seeing dogs as domestic help—they instead see them as part of the family. Nearly half (48%) said they see their pets as a family member and about equal numbers (49%) said they were part of the family, though not quite a family member.
Cynthia Rhue, who wrote a devotional for Guideposts about her dog Josie’s loyalty, describes her dachshund in non-human terms. About a year after the passing of her “angel,” Rhue discussed Josie’s affection for her in the context of Isaiah 41:10—“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; and uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
“When God did not seem near, Josie did not judge, she listened, and she was just the companion I needed in those dark uncertain times,” Rhue wrote.
Part of that comfort stemmed from her pets’ lack of agenda, she said.
“They just loved me because I loved them,” said Rhue, who has also owned a cat. “They were just who they were.”
Julie Buzby, a veterinarian and founder of Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips, a product that helps dogs avoid slipping, wouldn’t say that dogs “love” to the extent that humans, made in God’s image, can. Rather, a strong sense of respect and dependence on nurturing, she said, may be what it is — something still reflective of unconditional love.
“I don’t think we can classify animals as sinners,” Buzby told CT. “Which really makes it convenient, because I think we can remove the element of sin out of the relationship and it just makes it so sweet. … And I think there’s some element in that that reflects the purity and untainted relationship that we have with God, or that God has with us.”
Some people like Buzby see their pets as a part of God’s hand in their life.
Buzby credits their dog, Zeke, for helping put an end to her son’s night terrors by sleeping beside her son. Much like Rhue, she sees their dogs as irreplaceable companions—a gift from God that plays a role in their life.
“[Pets were] not the only solution, but [they] definitely played a very palliative role in helping our family and members of our family function better and live better,” said Buzby.
The numbers seem to indicate that people with pets tend to live longer, says Burge, who is a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University.
“I think there’s a theological argument there that we’re doing what God designed us to do by taking care of animals,” Burge said. “The original intent of humanity was to take care of animals and nature.”
Increasingly, Americans are choosing to be childless by choice, says Burge. Yet pet ownership suggests that many are still looking for something to care for and potentially indicates an innate desire in humans to care for things.
Nearly two thirds (62%) of Christians own at least one pet—the same percentage as the general population (62%). And just under half (48%) of Christian pet owners in the US said they think there is the right amount of emphasis placed on the wellbeing of pets when thinking about how pets are treated in comparison with people. A lower minority of Christian pet owners (28%) said there is too much emphasis, while others (23%) said there is not enough.
Christian writer Karen Swallow Prior is an animal lover who has occasionally worked with the Humane Society.
In a CT piece from 2011 about animal hoarding, or the practice of taking in too many animals beyond what a household can reasonably care for, she reminded Christians that they should not love animals more than people.
“But nor should we love animals less than we allow fear, greed, covetousness, or pride to rule our lives,” she wrote. “The challenge to love all things as much as they ought to be loved is a challenge for all of us, not just the animal hoarders. We ought to love in proper measure the animals God has placed under our care, and we ought to love our neighbors by helping them to do the same.”
Samantha Saad is CT’s 2023 Habecker Fellow and a student at Taylor University.