Rainbow bridge or bust: Pets and the afterlife

August 9, 2016

According to a study by NC State, your veterinary clients' beliefs in an afterlife for their pets could shape how well you interact with them in your practice.

A personal belief in an afterlife for humans is likely to shape belief in an animal afterlife, according to a study by three North Carolina State University of Veterinary Medicine professors. 

NC State's Department of Clinical Science professors Kenneth D. Royal, PhD, MSEd, April A. Kedrowicz, PhD, MS, and Amy M. Snyder, DVM, MBA, found that of the 800 participants in the study-titled “Do All Dogs Go to Heaven?”-who  believed in human afterlife, 73 percent also believed in animal afterlife. 

Of the research participants, the groups more likely to believe in the existence of an afterlife for animals were females (51 percent), American Indian/Alaska natives (71 percent), African-Americans (59 percent), Buddhists (77 percent), people living in the South (50 percent) and pet owners (45 percent). 

The study, set to be published this month in the journal Anthrozoös, is believed to be the first to systematically explore American's beliefs about the animal afterlife using a national sample of participants, according to a release from NC State.

"The notion of the human-animal bond is pervasive in the United States," says Royal in the release. "Yet Americans are incredibly diverse in terms of their backgrounds, experiences and views. We wanted to explore this issue further by investigating the role that one's religious views might have in understanding this relationship and the value of pets."

Of 12 different animals presented to the research participants, dogs, cats and horses were rated the most likely to experience and afterlife. Those rated least likely: insects, fish and reptiles.

While the study found widespread belief in an animal afterlife, participants were less certain when asked whether animals had souls: 16 percent stated "definitely no," 17 percent stated "probably no" and 20 percent were "unsure," compared with 26 who stated "probably yes" and 22 percent who said "definitely yes."

Such findings could help guide veterinarians in their interactions with pet owners.

"Spirituality and beliefs about animals, including animal afterlife, undoubtedly impact what clients think, how clients feel and what decisions they make. So veterinarians should explore and acknowledge client perspectives to build trust and actively engage them in the process of animal care," says Kedrowicz. "This requires an open approach to communication where the veterinarian asks clients to provide their perspectives with a focused attention to really listening and exploring client meanings and intentions."