And when a pet dies, the grief is deep - and so are the spiritual questions.
“Let’s be clear - the vast majority of time it’s not on the level of a family member, but it is real and it is bereavement,” said the Rev. Jeff Lukacs, pastor of Mary S. Brown-Ames United Methodist Church in Squirrel Hill.
Lukacs was a former police officer, and his dog, like Rocco, was a trained police dog who went to work with him and was always prepared to defend him with his life.
When his dog was terminally ill, Rev. Lukacs recalled his long, sad drive to the veterinarian for him to be euthanized, holding the dog in his arms when it died. The grief that followed was intense.
When children and adult parishioners ask about a dog’s eternal fate, he said, “It’s a tough one because there’s not a lot to pull from Scripture.” But he tells them that whatever they will need for heaven to be a place of comfort and joy, “it will be there.”
Of Americans who believe in heaven - which is most of them - nearly half believe their pets will go there, according to a 2001 poll by ABC News and the Beliefnet website.
“It sounds deceptively simple and maybe a little bit cute in some ways, but it’s an important topic,” said John Ferre, a University of Louisville communications professor who has surveyed more than two dozen books on pet heaven, with poignant titles such as “Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates.”
“It gets at the idea of: Is death permanent? And if that’s the case, what does life mean?” Ferre said. For many children, their first experience with death is with a pet, and one man told Ferre he abandoned his faith after his pastor refused to assure him his pet was in heaven.
People base their beliefs on pet heaven to some extent by the time-honored practice of searching the Bible for evidence — but many also cite extrasensory experiences, Ferre said, such as feeling their late cat’s presence in the room or hearing the ghostly jingling of a collar.
Affirmations of pet heaven range from traditionalists to the spiritual-but-not-religious. Rick Warren, the Southern Baptist megachurch pastor from California, told an interviewer he “can’t imagine God not allowing my dog into heaven.”
“Rainbow Bridge” - a widely circulated prose poem with no particular theological anchoring - describes how pets go to a heavenly paradise after they die, and happiness becomes complete when they are eventually reunited with their owners.
“What I found fascinating was the willingness to mix history and the Bible with paranormal experience,” Ferre said. “When you see the mix, then something interesting is happening in faith in America.”
That something is a mix-and-match spirituality reflected in a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, in which more than a fifth of self-professed Christians believed in things they likely never learned in Sunday School, such as astrology, reincarnation and spiritual energy in mountains or trees.
The Bible doesn’t directly address animal immortality, and some in Judaism and Christianity say humans have a uniquely eternal spiritual element that animals don’t share. But proponents of pets in heaven cite promises of God restoring creation in a glorious future, such as the prophet Isaiah’s vision of wolves and lambs living peaceably together.
The Hebrew prophet Nathan told a parable about a poor family that loved its pet lamb as dearly as any modern American family loves its dog or cat. The prophet then describes the heartless slaughter of the lamb by a wealthy neighbor as a crime as heinous as King David’s having a man killed so he could take his wife.