The Spiritual Lives of Animals
“Does my animal have a soul?’’ she asks me timidly.
I understand why she is pensive. Religious thought has not always been kind to animals. Some clergy even deny the presence of a soul to any being other than a human one. But I’m not that kind of minister. I’m an animal chaplain.
Every day I help humans unpack that question along with other curious ones, such as “How can I help my dog calm down?” And “Why does my cat do that?” But by far, my favorite inquiries are those about whether animals have spiritual lives.
Our Increasingly Interspecies Homes
According to the 2021-2022 survey of pet owners conducted annually by the American Pet Products Association, 70 percent of households in the United States now include an animal companion. Moreover, 95 percent consider their four-legged roommates family. Millions of animals live with humankind, and we spend billions of dollars on their health. We scrutinize pet food ingredients and endlessly search for the perfect toy. We scour websites for how to help a timid cat thrive or an aggressive dog chill out.
An impressive heap of research indicates that sharing our homes with animals can reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, decrease loneliness, boost our immune systems, and even help tackle post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Yet while most of us might appreciate these health benefits, we often stop short of considering the spiritual potential in interspecies living.
Life from Animal Points of View
Throughout the past 100 years, we humans have learned a lot about the emotional lives of animals, including plentiful evidence of animal altruism. Likewise, we’ve learned about other species’ capacity for grief and empathy.
We’ve realized that each living being experiences the world in radically different ways that are infinitely ingenious, diverse, and awe-inspiring. Birds see colors that other beings (including humans) cannot. Dolphins navigate the world by sound. Bears and moles rely on their fantastic sense of smell. Catfish taste the world, their bodies covered in taste buds.
Above all else, we’ve discovered that humans make up just .01 percent of life on this planet. It borders on ridiculous to suggest that creation was made exclusively for people. So it seems only fair to acknowledge that divine connections aren’t strictly for humans, either.
Defining Animal Spirituality
Starting with Jane Goodall, Ph.D., several primatologists, neurologists, and animal theologians have made a strong case that animal spirituality might be not only possible but also prevalent for animals with similar brain structures to ours, such as primates, horses, cats, and dogs.
This type of spirituality does not necessitate worship or specific beliefs and does not require language. Instead, it is based on attributes that are more universally available. For example, animal spirituality includes observing one’s environment with mindfulness and reverence for the mysterious. It involves being overwhelmed by grandeur and experiencing awe and wonder.
Considering the spiritual lives of animals requires we focus on how spirituality feels rather than what a specific religious text says. We need to decenter theological debates and cultivate an open receptivity to others’ ways of knowing. For example, picture a Zen master in deep meditation or a Christian mystic wholly absorbed in prayer. Recall a moment when you felt in harmony with your surroundings, somewhat oblivious to the specifics of what was happening around you. Now picture a monkey staring at a stunning sunset or a horse galloping through a dew-covered morning field.
Once we open to the possibility that animals might engage in spiritual moments, we can begin to think about what it might mean to include other species in our spiritual practices.
Meditating with Dogs
In a study published in Animals journal, psychologists tracked two styles of mindfulness with human-canine pairs during the pandemic lockdown. Some people sat with their animal companion, listening to a mindfulness recording. They used a feature of their dog as their object of focus, such as their dog’s fur. In the second style, pet parents spent seven minutes of undivided attention directly interacting with their dogs in a mindful, focused way.
During the six-week study, participants reported enhanced emotional and spiritual connections with their dogs as well as feelings of personal happiness, relaxation, and focus. Notably, the benefits appeared not only during the activities. “Positive aftereffects” were also recounted. Some people also remarked on witnessing “increased dog happiness.”
In another interspecies mindfulness study, people who previously found practicing mindfulness to be challenging noted that doing so with a dog made the practice easier and increased their motivation.
Spirituality and science can agree on the benefits of treating animals well. Research indicates when we treat other-than-human animals with respect, we also treat humans better. The reverse holds, as well. If we are okay with violence toward other species, we are more likely to allow violence toward other humans and the planet Earth.
Praying for Animals
What about prayer? Do you remember praying to God that your parents might get you a pony for your birthday? Or pleading with Spirit to help a lost pet find her way back home?
I vividly remember praying for lost pets and creating funeral services for tiny road-killed chipmunks I found on the way home from school, imploring God to look after them in heaven. Then, as our congregation stood to sing the doxology each Sunday morning, I belted out the lyrics proudly: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow! Praise him all creatures, here below!”
When I started studying to become an animal chaplain, I became aware that my feline housemates seemed to purr more when I prayed near them. I wondered if there was evidence prayer worked for animals. But as often as I asked, my cats refused to give me an answer that would stand up to rigorous scientific discourse. (Eventually, I located several studies reporting that a cat’s purring can help them relieve pain, heal wounds, and promote bone growth, though.)
Auspiciously, I soon stumbled upon fascinating research exploring prayer on behalf of a group of bush babies with chronic self-injuring and overgrooming behavior (sadly common in captive primates). In the study, researchers worked with people experienced with distance prayer. The subjects were given the names of the animals they were praying for and this brief description: “Bush babies are small—about 2 pounds—furry brown animals that look similar to a monkey.” They were also informed about desired outcomes, such as “medication effectiveness, that the animal’s behaviors become calm and nonstressed, and that wounds heal (for example, the sores close, skin forms to cover them, fur grows back over the wound site).” Prayer continued daily for four weeks.
At the end of the trial period, the size of the prayer-group bush babies’ wound areas were reduced more than the nonprayer group. The wounds themselves were also less severe. Further, they spent less time grooming their injuries, which researchers suggested might indicate they were experiencing less stress.
Another intriguing study reported that guinea pigs receiving water energized remotely by therapeutic touch healed more quickly than the animals given regular water.
While more research is needed to back up the claims of these studies on a broader scale, it seems possible that prayer can help heal animals from a distance.
Why Human-Animal Relationships Matter
While animal chaplaincy may sound like some new-fangled idea for the pet-obsessed, it’s important to note that this calling has a firm foundation. The world’s sacred texts contain numerous passages urging us to treat other species and our planet with reverence. St. Francis, the Buddha, Jesus, and even Unity founders Charles Fillmore and Myrtle Fillmore are just a few of the myriad spiritual luminaries who’ve taught compassion for animals. While they might not have meditated with dogs, prayed for bush babies, or questioned cats about their connection to God, these wise ones urged us to consider our animal neighbors.
What’s more, spirituality and science can agree on the benefits of treating animals well. Research indicates when we treat other-than-human animals with respect, we also treat humans better. The reverse holds, as well. If we are okay with violence toward other species, we are more likely to allow violence toward other humans and the planet Earth. Poor treatment of animals is a significant factor in climate change, ocean pollution, world hunger, deforestation, and other tragic problems. Respecting animals may help us mitigate some of these issues, bringing healing for all.
And that’s good news not only for polar bears and monarch butterflies but also for us humans too.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.