Where Do Pets Go When They Die?

by | Apr 19, 2016 | Catholic Living, Mailbag | 20 comments

Mailbag time!

The Question:
Hello, my name is Mollie and I am a big fan of your blog. I lost my pet of 17 years this weekend and I am struggling with the thought of breaking the news to my seven year old son this afternoon. We have been preparing him for her passing as she has been showing signs that her end was near but I want to be sure we honor any questions our son has on “where do pets go when they die” in a good Catholic way. How do you explain the passing of pets to your children?

Image from the St. Joseph First Communion Catechism, with smart alecky additions by me.

 The Answer:

Mollie, I’m sorry for your loss.

First step, I think, is to not rush into answering questions your son doesn’t ask. But, you are right to be prepared, just in case, of course. I would give him the facts about the where and when and how of the death, and comfort him and allow him to grieve and he can ask questions if he wants to.

I just listened to an autobiography with the kids, called Little Britches, about a boy growing up on a Colorado ranch. In the book the boy’s dad says we only have to be sad about creatures who die without having fulfilled their purpose. Your pet was loved and taken care of and gave love and companionship for seventeen years. That certainly sounds like a purposeful life.

That might be enough for your son.

As for what the Catholic Church teaches, there isn’t an official Church doctrine as to whether there are animals in heaven. Individual animals have an animating soul, but are not capable of choosing God in the way that humans are. The traditional teaching is that animals do not have an immortal soul and therefore, when they die, nothing remains of them. They just go out of existence.

St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, taught that . . .

Thesis XIV.  Souls of the vegetative [plant] and sensitive [animal] order, properly speaking, do not
subsist and are not produced, but merely exist and are produced as a principle whereby the living thing exists and lives. Since they depend entirely on matter, at the dissolution of the compound, they are indirectly destroyed.
Thesis XV.  On the contrary, the human soul subsists by itself, and is created by God when it can be infused into a sufficiently disposed subject, and is incorruptible and immortal by nature.

The news headlines a year or so back saying that Pope Francis had said animals go to heaven were a complete fabrication. The pope simply stated that the entire universe will be renewed, echoing a statement by St. Paul (Rom 8:21).

However, some people, including C.S. Lewis (not Catholic, but very very close, theologically), do think that animals could be in heaven. Not by their own merits, but because of their relationship with humans, just as humans can be in heaven through our relationship with God.

If, nevertheless, the strong conviction which we have of a real, though doubtless rudimentary, selfhood in the higher animals, and specially in those we tame, is not an illusion, their destiny demands a somewhat deeper consideration. The error we must avoid is that of considering them in themselves. Man is to be understood only in his relation to God. The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God. . . .

Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, andeverything a man does
to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only “natural” animal – the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. . . .

And in this way it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters. . . .

It makes God the centre of the universe and man the subordinate centre of terrestrial nature: the beasts are not co-ordinate with man, but subordinate to him, and their destiny is through and through related to his. And the derivative immortality suggested for them is not a mere amende or compensation: it is part and parcel of the new heaven and new earth, organically related to
the whole suffering process of the world’s fall and redemption.

chapter nine  The Problem of Pain

But no matter what . . .

There wouldn’t be any problem in saying that IF it would make his happiness in heaven complete, certainly your son would see his pet again, because that’s true.

We would each have complete happiness in heaven, so anything that his happiness requires will be there. But most theologians would argue that the beatific vision of God and an understanding of the whole purpose of the universe and God’s plan for our lives is all anyone would need for perfect happiness in heaven.

I like this way of looking at it, by Paul Thigpen:

God might choose to keep at least some animal “souls” from perishing after death, by granting them a privilege beyond their nature — what is known as a preternatural gift.

In any case, we know this much: Because animals can’t have sanctifying grace in their souls to receive the beatific vision, then if any of them do go to heaven, it wouldn’t be for the same reason that humans are in heaven.

What other reasons might there be? Perhaps it’s possible that God will allow the animals we’ve loved on earth to take part somehow in our heavenly life as part of our eternal happiness.

In fact, since God himself takes delight in all the good creatures he’s made, he might give at least some animals a life in heaven for the sake of his own pleasure.

We can only speculate; we won’t know for sure until, God-willing, we arrive in heaven ourselves.

Whatever the case may be, we can be assured that God loves every creature he makes. He loves them even more than we do.

That can be a comforting thought when we’re saddened to lose a dear pet or see some other living creature die. Because God loves them, we can entrust them to him.

Good luck!
P.S. The book Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers is an excellent read (or listen). It’s like a more masculine Little House on the Prairie. My kids all really liked it. But be forewarned, it’s a true story and in it there are some gruesome injuries to horses. And one mild swear word. And people die. My kids handled it fine, even the little ones, but it’s probably one of the more intense books we’ve read together.

P.P.S. What ever you do . . .  do NOT watch the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven with your children.

60 reasons ‘All Dogs Go to Heaven’ is the most disturbing kids’ movie ever made

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)
If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching,
please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an
expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of
experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in
marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you’ve got a question,
please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me
know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the


p.s. I am WAY behind on my mailbag. Like, a month behind. Maybe two. Between keeping up the blog, writing for Blessed is She (about the devil), the printables and custom work at the Etsy shop, the mugs and t-shirts and pint glasses at the Cafepress shop, the fixing up of the house we bought, and the
general care, feeding, and education of my children . . . I am fresh out of time to respond to emails. But if
you wrote to me to ask a question, please know that I got it. I read
it. I composed an answer to you in my head. But I haven’t typed it up
yet. It is my sincere intention to do so sometime in the near future.


  1. Anonymous

    Thank you for your thoughts!

    The thought that was most useful for me is only to answer the questions that were actually asked. I tend – like so many other Moms – to think of every questions possible and how I could answer them but sometimes it really makes more sense to listen first and then to ponder together.

    We don't always need to have all the answers, sometimes we'll figure out something together with our kids. And that's so precious!

  2. Hannah Gokie

    Not much related to this post but…I'm hoping you're going to read the rest of the Little Britches series? My dad read them to us kids aloud growing up, and I've reread them all a few times now. They're one of my all-time favorite books! One of the great under appreciated classics of American literature. Such good stories, simple language for lots of kiddo ages, and mostly good morals with real life thrown in. 🙂

    • Abby S.

      Ditto on the whole Little Britches series! I just finished the 2nd book and it was as great a read as the first, maybe better. The whole series is at the top of our summer reading list.

  3. Amanda

    An excellent treatment of the issue! Thanks! But mostly now I'm freaked out my All Dogs Go to Heaven

  4. Amy D.

    I agree with the commenter who stated the most useful thought is to remember to only answer questions asked! I have a tendency in general, not just parenting, to give a lot of information and as my son (age 2.5) gets older and more verbal, I realize that I am going to need to constantly remind myself to slow down with the answers and listen to the questions. We have two dogs, ages 11 and 13, who my son adores. They are part of his nap and bedtime routines and he squabble and makes up with them all day. He tells me that he is going to grow up to drive a firetruck with Jessy (the 13 year old) riding along. It breaks my heart to even think about the dogs leaving us; but, I know someday it will happen.

  5. Ally | The Speckled Goat Blog

    Just a (maybe not so helpful) note- most Protestants don't believe animals go to heaven. I take the same stance as your first statement- no need to be sad if they've lived a life of fulfilling their duties to human beings. And I also think we can be so grateful that God gives us these fun animals to enjoy and to brighten our days. =)

  6. Manda

    Okay, I am now thoroughly freaked out that my parents let us watch All Dogs Go to Heaven. I remember it being disturbing and not liking it much (besides the dogs, I do like dogs so I wanted to like it) but figured I had just seen it too young or something. Nope, seeing those clips I'm even more appalled that it exists. In fact, it's even way worse of a movie than Frozen. At least Frozen isn't so freaky.

    Anyway, I like your thoughts on animals, particularly the Paul Thigpen quote. I know this day will be coming in a couple years for my 5 year old when his guinea pig dies. We lost 3 of our chickens to a rabid skunk two years ago and I was surprised but our kids were not terribly upset by it. Sad, yes, and they wanted to replace them, but they didn't ask too many questions and we just didn't explain beyond that an animal had gotten the chickens and so 3 had died. We were the ones traumatized by the whole event since we broke in on the coop mid attack. 😮

  7. Ali

    Thank you for this fantastic resource! Your mailbag questions certainly lighten the parenting load. It is also so fun to hear about the house remodel! Thank you for sharing!
    We have an unwrapped DVD of All Dogs Go to Heaven that was gifted to us and never caught the kids interest. It is headed for the trash.

  8. Carolyn

    I heard an excellent and very reasonable answer to this question in a sermon on Sensus Traditionis. The priest explained animals on earth can not go to heaven because Christ did not redeem them. God took on a human nature to redeem HUMANITY. He did not take on an animal nature and redeem animals as well. If there are animals in heaven they will not be the same animals we have on earth as the animals on earth are fallen creatures thanks to the fall of Adam and Eve.

  9. Kathia

    Many early fathers of the Church also wondered (and wrote theses about) whether women had souls that could go to heaven. Some decided we didn't. :-/ I think it is safest to say we don't know much of anything about the afterlife, except that as Kendra says, God loves all of His creation beyond what we could imagine.

    • Kathia

      Good article Carolyn. I especially liked the First Things link: http://www.firstthings.com/article/1997/04/002-the-myth-of-soulless-women

      And from there I read this one: http://www.firstthings.com/article/1999/12/what-aquinas-really-said-about-women

      So it is good to have that clarified. However… these articles point out something that is at the heart of why I even posted my original reply: Humans in their pride assume too much about how God orders things. That there could even be a rumor of "soul-less women" is based on the "rational" thought processes of Aristotle and the like. Even Aquinas thought male souls entered the body (and thus made it viable) sooner than female souls (because the female is "less perfect"). So… I don't trust human rationalizations, even based on scripture, about animal souls. That was my point. Jesus did not say animals cease to exist. He said we were worth more than many sparrows, but He also frequently used hyperbole to get His point across. In the Old Testament, God allowed Jewish law to label the unborn as not fully human and thus not worthy of human rights. We assume now God does not really think this way. All I am trying to say is that we should be very, very careful not to put words in God's mouth. To say for certain animals have no souls is to do just that. We don't know whether they do or do not.

    • Carolyn

      I remember learning as a child, we used the Baltimore Catechism, that animals have mortal souls and humans have immortal souls. Mortal souls cease to exist when the animals or the plant dies and therefore the same plants and animals we have on earth will not be the same ones in heaven. I'm not sure if that is part of official church teaching, or just the common opinion of the theologians.
      I liked the explanation I heard from a priest that animals on earth can not go to heaven because Christ did not redeem them. God took on a human nature to redeem HUMANITY. He did not take on an animal nature and redeem animals as well. If there are animals in heaven they will not be the same animals we have on earth as the animals on earth are fallen creatures thanks to the fall of Adam and Eve.

      The good thing Kathia is that one day, if we save our souls, we will know for sure! I think the important thing is that we are all ready, willing, and able to submit ourselves to whatever God has designed regardless of whether it is what we desire it to be. There will most certainly be animals in heaven if that is God's will!

    • Kathia

      I just have one thing to say in reference to this priest who teaches that God only redeemed humanity: Romans 8:19-21.

    • Carolyn

      Thats great quote. I am by no means a scripture scholar, not even in the slightest of slightest bits. After reading all of chapter 8 I would be afraid to assume God is speaking of animals, verse 21 reads, "Because the creature also itself shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God." I wouldn't call animals "children of God" and would hesitate to say God was speaking of animals here by the term "creature." Again I am not a scripture scholar and am not comfortable trying to interpret scripture on my own. I'd rather read what the saints have had to say as that is much safer. I'm not sure if any have commented on this passage. It might be worth researching!

      I've enjoyed our discussion, and I hope you have too. I am going to bow out now and I wish you a blessed evening!


  10. Mir Haadi

    Some of the same features that made them good as vermin hunters — small size, friendly personality, intelligence — make them wonderful pets Poodle Mixes

  11. Linda Baker

    thank you for writing and sharing this heartfelt analogy

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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