Carolyn Sharp's beloved greyhound Starr was 4 years old when she was diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer.
Sharp decided the two of them would stay together as long as Starr was not suffering too much. The greyhound received radiation treatments and pain patches for several months until the veterinarian told Sharp it was time to end it.
“When we went in for the last time, I held her in my arms for the comfort of both of us until she had left,” said Sharp, who lives in Overland Park, Kan. “I have still not really made peace with losing her so young.”
But she is certain she'll hold Starr again – in an afterlife.
“I believe I'll have three cats and a whole bunch of dogs waiting for me,” Sharp said.
Is there an afterlife for animals? Or as a popular question puts it, “Do all dogs go to heaven?”
Jack Vinyardi of Kansas City, Mo., an ordained interfaith chaplain of pets, said he is asked that question all the time as he comforts people about to lose or who have lost a pet.
He tells them there is no faith that claims to know unquestionably what happens to animals when they die.
“It is my job to comfort,” he said. “I believe we each can find answers to divine questions if we look deeply in our own hearts and ask for guidance there.”
Vinyardi does believe this: “Our relationships with our companion animals are both emotional and spiritual, so they never really end, wherever our bodies and souls go after death.”
We asked people of various religions how their faith answers the question of whether there is an afterlife for animals.
Thor Madsen, academic dean at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, acknowledged the desire of Christians to see their pets again. But, he concluded, “We really have no biblical grounds for an assurance that our pets will be resurrected along with us.”
Some Christians think heaven would be lacking something essential to their happiness if their pets are not there with them, Madsen said.
“But the Scriptures imply that heaven's overwhelming treasure for us is the fellowship that we, the followers of Christ, will have with our Creator and Savior,” he said. “… Nothing will seem to be absent at that point.”
People have asked the Rev. John Schmeidler of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Lawrence, Kan., whether their pets have gone to heaven.
God's plans for animals after death are not fully known, he said. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about animals having a soul, but it wasn't similar to that of humans, and St. Francis of Assisi saw animals as God's creatures to be honored and respected, said Schmeidler, a Capuchin Franciscan.
The Catholic Church traditionally teaches that animals do not go to heaven, he said.
”But a lot of people have a hard time with that, and I do, too, when I see a grieving pet owner. I know God wants us to be totally happy in heaven, and if our dog will help make us fully happy, and if God can resurrect us, I'm sure he could resurrect a dog, too.”
The Qur'an contains no direct references to an afterlife for animals, said Muslim scholar Abdalla Idris Ali of Kansas City. But there are indirect references.
One says that in paradise people will be given everything they have asked for, he said, “so indirectly, if they want their pets, they can have them with them.”
Islam also teaches that God will be judge of people and animals, Ali said.
“For example, he will charge an animal that has horns who took advantage of one that didn't have horns, and that horned animal will be turned to dust after taking him to account for what the horned animal did,” he said.
Rabbi Scott White of Congregation Ohev Sholom in Prairie Village once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Lord, please help me to become as great a person as my dog thinks I am.”
“Judaism teaches that God reserves a blessed existence in the world to come for the truly virtuous,” White said. “It's only fitting that such an existence includes the pet that inspired the greatness.
“For myself, paradise with my own mutt (Rescue the Wonder Dog) is a perfect inducement to pursue virtue.”
American Indians believe all creatures are interconnected, said Gary Langston of Kansas City, a Northern Cherokee.
“All living things are children of the Earth,” he said. “It doesn't matter if we have feet or wings or roots.
“So, yes, there is an afterlife for animals. We all are going home, back to the Creator. And, yes, people will see their pets again. The dog I had as a kid, his spirit never left me; he just moved into a different dimension.”
There is a story in the Hindu epic “Mahabharata” about Yudhisthira, the eldest and noblest of five Pandava brothers. When he made his final journey to heaven, his faithful dog Dhruba followed him there, said Anand Bhattacharyya, a member of the Kansas City area Hindu community.
“Yudhisthira was allowed to go to heaven, but not his dog,” he said. “But he didn't want to enter heaven without his dog. On Yudhisthira's insistence both were allowed to enter heaven in eternal peace.”
Still the general Hindu belief is that animals have souls but no access to eternal life, Bhattacharyya said.
“Because of the soul's inherent urge to be united with its source (God), souls in animals will ultimately evolve to the human plane. Once the soul is in a human body, it is capable of union with God in eternal bliss. But it may take many more reincarnations in human form to liberate the soul from the death-rebirth cycle.”
From the Buddhist perspective, “I don't know” about an afterlife for humans or animals, said Marnie Hammer of Mid America Dharma.
“The Buddha talked about being present now rather than spending a lot of time worrying about what's out there,” she said.
Buddhism teaches that the animal realm is a lower realm of existence, Hammer said.
“I've had three cats that I've shared my life with and have made my life richer, but I don't know if I'll see them again,” she said. “That's not the question.”
The question, she said, is whether one is making life “more peaceful and generous for everyone.”