Christianity, Compassion and Man’s Best Friend

In her new book, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals, author Laura Hobgood-Oster tackles the subject of religion and animals.

As an evangelical Christian (a label I use with a great deal of hesitation, understanding the pop culture stereotype it brings to mind) Hobgood-Oster’s book was a little beyond my theological depth. Using examples from stories of the saints (evangelical Christianity isn’t big on saints) and other religious historical documents with which I am unfamiliar (what is the book of Tobit?), I can only say that she’s highly educated and did a lot of research, and so I happily defer to her wisdom in those academic regards.

Besides, I don’t need to go much further than the Bible for proof that, yes, God cares about the way we treat our animals. God created the earth, He created man in His image. We’re to care for the earth because we love God and His creation, and that means treating everything with compassion, always seeking the best for others, and sacrificing so that others may be blessed.

Each of the topics Hobgood-Oster brings up could be the basis for an entire book – and many have been. Christian bookstores, for example, abound with books addressing the question of faith and food. (For a great discussion of food and the Bible, check out Hope Eagan’s “Holy Cow”. It’s a thought provoking, non-judgmental discussion of food and the Bible from a Messianic Jewish perspective.)

But what about faith and our family pets? How does a Christian show compassion to man’s best friend?

According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 62% of American households own at least one pet, and we spend an estimate $50 billion dollars on everything from dog food to vet care to toys.

Big name, designer companies like Paul Mitchell, Omaha Steaks, Origins, Harley Davidson and Old Navy have gotten into the game with pet products ranging from dog shampoo, pet attire, and name-brand toys to gourmet treats and food. You can even get doggie toothpaste and mouthwash, dog car seats, and puppy high chairs, or take your dog to a doggie spa.

But as we’ve given Fido more accessories, made him smell better and look nicer, and treated him to gourmet treats, have we really done him any favors?

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) earlier this year released the results of their fourth annual National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Study. They found approximately 53% of cats and 55% of dogs were overweight or obese. Obesity leads to illnesses like diabetes and cancer, much like it does in humans.

Indulging our dogs to the point of sickness so that Fido can look pretty (and thereby make us feel better, because trust me, your dog doesn’t care how it looks or what label it wears) doesn’t seem very compassionate, does it?

Consider also the fact that our desire for designer dogs with specific (and often fashionable) appearances has led to undesirable genetic changes in dog health in almost all pure breeds. That cute little pug, for example, is bred specifically for that smooshed in snout – a snout that causes Brachycephalic airway syndrome. The snorting, snorking, sneezing, wheezing so typical of many short nosed dogs is simply their way of trying desperately to breathe.

Breeding dogs for appearance, even if they suffer for it,  isn’t very compassionate, is it?

I don’t think dog owners actively seek to do their best friends harm. I just think we’ve forgotten that humans are not meant to use God’s creation any old way we choose just to satisfy our personal, superficial needs.

It’s something I’m learning myself. I have two Border Collies, lovely dogs who are great companions. My oldest has always been a little quirky but lacked that genetic herding mentality you find in dogs on sheep farms. My youngest collie, though, has a very strong herding instinct. Whether his body is moving or not, he’s going 100 miles an hour in his mind, always ready to spring into action should any come our way. He’s a faithful, well trained but very tightly wound dog who must certainly be frustrated by a life in the ‘burbs.

That’s definitely not very compassionate. And as I learn more and more about dogs, you can be assured that the next time around I won’t sentence a herding dog to a writer’s lifestyle. I can only say that when I got both Scout and Bandit, they appealed to me for a variety of reasons, but I admit I thought little about whether or not my life would appeal to them.

Which is why I was so struck by something writer Jon Katz said in his book, “The New Work of Dogs”:

“[M]ore people than ever see dogs at partners or surrogates as they deal with serious problems in their past or current lives. Our dogs replace human relationships or reflect our emotional needs and scars. …People often choose dogs because they perceive them as being loving in a particular way they want or need, or needy in ways they can relate to, or forgiving … People who felt unloved sometimes need to view their dogs as unconditionally loving.”

In other words, we’ve turned dogs into our emotional support system, there to make us feel better, feel loved, feel less alone. But we also want dogs that don’t bark, don’t smell, don’t shed. When we look for a dog, we don’t consider how we can meet its needs; rather we ask what the dog will look like and decide from that if it’s a good fit for our family.

But we often don’t see dogs as … well, dogs, with dog needs and dog community, created by God (as a descendent of the wolf; that’s a whole other discussion). Yes, man’s best friend is called that for a reason, and God certainly blessed man with such a faithful and loving companion.

Isn’t it time we were blessing back to our dogs? Compassion – especially Christian compassion – doesn’t mean that we use other living beings as we see fit without considering their own needs as well. The whole “do unto others” should apply to our animal companions, too.

Award-winning freelance writer and blogger Joanne Brokaw writes about life with three dogs, a cat, seven chickens and one very patient husband on her blog,

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