Do Jews believe dogs and cats have souls?
There is no doubt that Jews of all backgrounds and practices may believe that dogs and cats have souls; accordingly I would like to reframe the question and respond to the following:
Does *normative Jewish thought support the idea that dogs and cats have souls?
The question assumes that 'soul' is a given, understood term and as such need not be defined; however, without clarifying its meaning any answer would be fallible. For the sake of this response, 'soul' is understood as the Jewish concept of a non-corporal entity that consciously influences physical behavior toward either good (yetzer ha’tov) or bad (yetzer ha’rah). Action which is only instinctual or learned while void of an ethical decision making process – e.g. sleep, hunger, thirst, reproduction, survival – is not a sign of the Jewish concept of 'soul.'
The Biblical verse that communicates the Jewish understanding of ‘soul’ is found in Proverbs 20:27 ðø ä' ðùîú àãí – Gd’s light is the human soul. ‘Soul’ is that part of a person's constitution which manifests Gd’s image – that part of us that **incorporates intellect, emotion, psychology, wisdom, experience, thoughtfulness, consideration, expectation, humor, loyalty, relations, consequence, ethics, morality and more as we attempt to interact with the world. In other words, ‘soul’ is the Gd part of humans as expressed in thought and action. As such, humans are capable of altruism and unselfish behavior for the sake of others even to our own detriment. Much of human behavior is the result of calculated thought whereby we decide to act in our own best interests – dogs and cats and most all animals also act in their own best interest but their behavior is the result of an amoral decision making process. Much of conscious human activity is action that can be classified as having moral overtones.
There are certainly recorded incidents of animal behavior that goes against the natural instincts of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Those instances are not the normative, recognizable behavior of animal species. Whereas it is fair to claim that human understanding of animal behavior is limited by our imperfect ability to communicate with animals, it is also fair to claim that 'soul' is a term reserved to label a feature exclusive to humans.
It is understandable that many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, want to attribute the personality and intellect of animals to the concept of soul. There is no doubt in this author's mind that animals have a connection and relationship to Gd, have the capacity to be in friendship with others, and whose behavior is influenced by a decision process. However, to label these characteristics as 'soul' is to misrepresent the Jewish understanding of soul.
In closing, it would be incorrect to believe that if animals do not have a 'soul' they are merely ambulatory organisms not worthy of consideration or compassion. Though Judaism does not place animals on the same plane as humans in terms of capacity to manifest the attributes of Gd, human treatment of sentient creatures is legislated by Jewish law. Our tradition recognizes that animals with a perception and consciousness of pain and pleasure – physical and/or emotional – deserve the benefit of human employment of the very soul that would have us act responsibly, compassionately, and with humility toward these virtuous creatures with whom we share Gd’s world.
* This response does not incorporate kabbalistic/mystical Jewish teachings regarding animals.
** That someone may have a disability and is therefore not able to incorporate the attributes of Gd into her daily life does not mean that a soul is absent. The soul certainly accompanies such a person throughout her lifetime, but the expression of the soul is stymied by the bio-physical limitations of the person.