In Hashem’s warning of the final plague, Makkas Bechoros, the Pesukim describe what will come about:

“And Moshe said: Thus says Hashem: About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even to the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has been none like it, nor shall be like it any more. But against any of the children of Israel no dog shall sharpen his tongue, against man or beast; that you may know that Hashem distinguishes between Egypt and Israel” (Shemos 11:4-7)

As commentaries explain, the silence of the dogs was part of the great miracle, part of the distinction that Hashem made between the dying Egyptians and the nascent Jewish nation. Chazal teach that the dogs were rewarded for their participation in the miracle. As the Mechilta explains (on the Pasuk), it is for this reason that the Torah assigns non-Kosher meat to dogs (Shemos 22:30): we throw non-Kosher meat to dogs because Hashem remembers their unnatural silence in Egypt.

One of the most commonly owned animals as pets is the dog, and the mention of dogs in our Parashah calls us to discuss some of the pertinent halachos concerning ownership of pets (and dogs in particular).

We have already had occasion to discuss the question of bringing guide dogs into a shul, where there is a concrete need for this. This week, we will turn to additional questions. It is proper at all to own pets? It is permitted to neuter a pet, where there is a need? And what are the relevant halachos for feeding pets? These questions, among others, are discussed below.

Keeping Dogs at Home

The Gemara (Bava Kama 15b) cites from Rabbi Noson that one who raises an “evil dog” in his home transgresses the Torah prohibition of “Do not place blood in your home” (Devarim 22:8). This clearly implies that when the dog is not “evil,” meaning, a dog that is not predisposed to cause damage, it is permitted to raise a dog in one’s home. Later in Bava Kama (80a) we find specific permission (in the name of Rabbi Yishmael) to raise a dogs for the purpose of eliminating rodents (Rashi explains that the reference is to small dogs or hunting dogs that do no harm).

At the same time, we find (Bava Kama 79b) that it is forbidden to own a dog unless the dog is securely chained up, so that it cannot cause physical damage, nor frighten anyone with its bark—which the Gemara notes can cause a woman to miscarry her child. This seems to apply to any dogs, and not only to dangerous ones.

The Gemara expands on this statement (83a), also mentioning (in the name of Rabbi Eliezer) that one who raises a dog is considered as one who raises a pig, for which a special curse applies—though the Rama explains that this refers only to an untied dog, and not to a dog that is kept tied.

Based on these sources, the Rambam (Nizkei Mammon 5:9) thus rules that it is forbidden to raise any dog unless it is secured by chains. He explains the reason for this, “since dogs often cause significant damage.”

However, most early authorities understand that the restriction noted in the Gemara, whereby one can own a dog only if it is chained securely, is limited to “evil dogs”—dogs prone to damaging others. For domesticated and “well-behaved” dogs there is no such restriction, and it is permitted to keep such a dog without concern (see Tur, Choshen Mishpat 409; Hagahos Maimoni, Rotze’ach 11:3; Semag, Aseh 66). This lenient opinion is noted by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 409:3), and this is also the general ruling given by later authorities.

What is an “Evil Dog”?

In defining an “evil dog,” the Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 7:45) writes that only dogs that neither bite nor bark are exempted from the category—as noted above, a dog that barks is considered dangerous since a threatening bark can cause a woman to miscarry. Therefore, he requires one to chain his dog even if it only barks.

The Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Shmiras Guf Ve’nefesh, 3) reaches a similar conclusion, noting that many Jews own dogs that bark but do not bite, but stating that the justification for this is weak, since the consensus of authorities is that even a dog that merely barks must not be kept unchained. He concludes that “all G-d-fearing Jews should ensure that dogs that bark are secured with iron chains while people are awake, even if these dogs merely bark and do not bite” (see also Kenesses Hagedola, Choshen Mishpat 409:4).

It is noteworthy that Rabbi Yaakov Emden (Sheilas Yaavetz 17) states that in any case it is only permitted to keep dogs for purposes of protection or for some economic reason, but other than this one should refrain from the practice, which reflects the negative ways of non-Jews.

This special stringency, however, is not noted by other authorities—though the Sefer Chassidim (1038) writes that owning birds is “nonsense,” and that money should be put to better use.

Feeding Pets

The Pasuk states (Devarim 11:15): “I will give grass in your fields for your animal, and you shall eat and be satisfied.” The Gemara (Berachos 40a; Gittin 62a) derives from here that one may not eat before feeding his animals, as the order given by the Torah, providing first for the animal’s needs, and only then for the human’s.

This ruling is not noted by the Shulchan Aruch, apparently following the Rambam, who notes the idea of feeding animals first as a middas chassidus, and not as a full obligation (Hilchot Avadim 9:8).

Yet, the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 167:18) cites the statement of the Gemara as normative halacha, noting elsewhere (271:12) in the name of Rav Yaakov Emden that this is actually a biblical prohibition.

The Chayei Adam (45:1), Mishnah Berurah (167:40) and Aruch Hashulchan (167:13) all note this law as a prohibition (though the Biur Halacha shows, based on the Rema, that it is not a biblical obligation). One must therefore be careful to refrain from dining (the Mishnah Berurah refers to eating and drinking) before feeding one’s animals.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden (Shut Ya’avetz 1, 17) writes that the halacha of feeding one’s animals will not apply to cats and dogs, who are not dependent on their owners for survival, and can fend for themselves by eating food from the garbage and the like (cited by Shaarei Teshuva 167:9; Chayei Adam 45:1). Yet, for domesticated animals confined to a house setting (such as many dogs), this leniency will not apply.

Which Foods to Feed

Note that even for animals, one must refrain from feeding a cooked mixture of meat and milk, from which it is forbidden to derive benefit (Yoreh De’ah 87:1). This applies specifically to meat from a kosher domesticated animal (beheimos), and not to a fowl, non-domesticated animals (chayos), or non-kosher meat (it is permitted to buy non-kosher meat for one’s animals).

There is a matter of doubt concerning the status of a meat and milk mixture for meat from a kosher animal that was not ritually slaughtered (see Rambam, commentary to Kerisus 3:4, who is lenient), and because of the doubt involved one should be stringent in this matter (see Pri Megadim, introduction to the laws of mixtures of milk and meat; Shut Chasam Sofer 92; the Aruch HashulchanYoreh Deah 87:12, is lenient).

Another prohibition one must take into account is chametz on Pesach. It is forbidden to derive benefit from chametz on Pesach, so that one must be wary of chametz ingredients in pet food (Shulchan Aruch 448:17). This applies even to food that does not belong to the Jewish owner, whereby there is no transgression in the ownership of the chametz. It is permitted to feed one’s animals kitniyos on Pesach, from which there is no prohibition of deriving benefit.

Neutering Pets

It is common for a pet owner to wish to neuter his pet. Sometimes this is done to male pets (dogs in particular), in order to prevent them from behaving in an aggressive way. For female pets this is done to prevent the pet from multiplying. It is permitted to do so under halacha?

The Torah prohibits neutering an animal, as we find in the Torah verse; the words “you shall not do so in your land” (Vayikra 22:24), following the disqualification of neutered animals as an offering, is understood as a reference to all animals. The prohibition is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 5:11), though there is debate concerning a female animal as to whether the transgression is biblical or rabbinic (see Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggros Moshe, Even Ha’ezer 4:34).

However, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 56b) records a dispute concerning whether removal of reproductive organs is forbidden even for non-Jews or not. Rishonim differ concerning which opinion is accepted in halacha. Although some later authorities are lenient (see Aruch Hashulchan, Even HaEzer 5:26), the Beit Shmuel (Even Haezer 5:16) rules that this dispute has not been resolved, so that a doubt remains over whether the matter is permitted or not.

Because of this doubt, it is not permitted to ask a non-Jewish veterinarian to neuter an animal, since this would be a violation of “do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind” (Vayikra 19:14)—by asking the veterinarian to neuter the animal, one causes him to sin. It is possible to circumvent the matter by selling the animal to a non-Jew, as suggested by a number of authorities (see Shut Shoel Umeishiv 3:1:229; Shut Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 185; Shut Haelef Lecha Shlomo, Even Haezer 23)—but this is only suggested as a strained solution for extenuating circumstances, and there is room to doubt whether the convenience of owning pets will be sufficient cause.

However, it has been suggested that one can neuter an animal by an indirect method, for instance by means of injection. The Shevet HaLevi (6:204) notes that this is permitted concerning asking a non-Jew to neuter a female animal (see Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski, “Tubal Ligation and Jewish Law: An overview,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society VII, pp. 42-52). There are certain newly developed alternatives to castration, which do not involve the removal (direct or indirect) of reproductive organs, and these will of course be preferable.


This article has not dealt with issues of Shabbos observance in caring for pets; we will please G-d return to the matter at a later date.

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