Do dogs go to heaven?

The first study to systematically explore beliefs about animal afterlife by asking a national sample of Americans has been published in the journal Anthrozoös. It investigated how demographic categories can have a considerable influence on beliefs about animal afterlife. With around 70% of US households owning pets, the study marks a new insight into a largely unexplored area of American spirituality.

The authors surveyed 800 participants, examining how demographic factors including sex, race, age, geographic region, religious beliefs, and pet ownership all affect an individual's beliefs about animal afterlife.

Results showed that people who believe in an afterlife for humans are substantially more likely to believe in an afterlife for animals – 59% of participants believed in human afterlife and 75% of those individuals also believed in animal afterlife (though they reported stronger confidence in their human afterlife beliefs).

The survey further indicated that members of certain demographic categories are more likely to believe animals have a life after death. Women, American Indians/Alaska Natives, Black/African Americans, Buddhists, persons living in the South, and pet owners are all more likely to believe in animal afterlife.

The researchers additionally found people held different beliefs for different animals. The leader of the study – Kenneth Royal of North Carolina State University – said: “In general, dogs, cats, and horses were rated the most likely to experience an afterlife, whereas insects, fish, and reptiles were rated the least likely.”

“Another interesting finding is that although more pet owners (45%) believed in an animal afterlife than non-pet owners (37.8%), a large number of pet owners did not believe in an afterlife for pets. We speculate that this is likely related to the fact that almost half of our sample claimed to have no specific religious beliefs or faith.”

“It could also point to the importance of cultural traditions and inherited preconceptions towards beliefs about animals over actual animal experiences like pet ownership.”

The findings may have clinical significance for veterinarians in end of life care. Vets should be aware in decision-making and general practice that some people extend their own spirituality to their pets.

This new research may also go some way to explaining the enormous online backlashes in recent years on social media surrounding highly publicized cases of animal killings. Although there is clear variation in beliefs between people of different demographics, a significant number of people do believe that animal lives really are every bit as sacred as their own.