One day, I'm not going to be such an oddity. Dogs (and all pets) are slowly but surely making their way into Jewish communities all across America. It's becoming downright normal.
Until recently, pet ownership was pretty exotic in the orthodox community. Many community rabbis (the majority? I doubt it) rule that pets can't be touched on Shabbat (often a knee-jerk answer instead of a researched one), and that is a good enough reason to not pursue pet ownership. Also, they're expensive, especially on top of 4 day school tuitions and eating kosher meat.
If that weren't enough, there is a deeply-entrenched fear of dogs in the Jewish community. My understanding is that many of my generation's grandparents are simply terrified of dogs (the Nazis definitely helped create that fear). Once a parent has a fear of dogs, he or she often tells the kids to avoid dogs and that they're "scary." Also, kids pick up on how their parents shy away from animals or even cross the street when a neighbor walks a dog down the street. The children have a lesser fear of dogs that might more appropriately be called inertia and habit. Today, my generation (who is having kids today) often grew up with parents who didn't like pets and didn't have any, but the kids had secular neighbors who had dogs. These children went over to friends' houses and met dogs there. Now, their adult friends are getting pets. This generation, despite being raised with a nominal dog fear-mongering, has been exposed to pets. There is still a lot of fear or dislike, but there is a great openness to having pets and a realization that pet ownership has many benefits. And that's how people end up with pets: the parents aren't opposed to the idea (or even think it might be nice), and then they have children who beg for pets. We've seen an exponential increase in pet ownership in the community, but I don't think it's anything like what we're going to see 10 years from now when my generation's kids are a bit older.
Unfortunately, the yeshivot aren't preparing their rabbinical students for these issues in the communities that will hire them. All you need is one pet owner in the community, and there will be shailahs for the rabbi. In smaller communities with high baal teshuva and convert populations, the pet ownership rate could be more than 50%. I would estimate that over 75% of one of my prior communities owned at least one species of pet, but often several species. Some friends and I are doing our best to change the attitude that "pet halacha" isn't a priority in rabbinic education, but change is always slow. However, at least there is a growing public conversation that is allowing pet owners to pool their knowledge and to locate far-away rabbis who are qualified to answer these questions.
When talking about pets, you need to assess your local rabbi's knowledge and his willingness to ask someone more knowledgeable in a particular halachic area. You can ask him what he has learned and if he knows a rabbi who is knowledgeable on pet issues. It helps if your rabbi owns pets or has owned them. Some things just can't be explained to someone who has never had a pet, and sometimes those facts can be halachically relevant. I'm told there's one book on the topic of pet halacha, but I haven't found it, and you don't see many rabbis publishing papers about it. (I did find a book about the halacha of wild animals!)
In some ways, pet shailahs are very similar to conversion: a community rabbi knows very little about today's conversion process (as opposed to what's "on paper" halachically) nor does he know how to apply halacha to someone "between" halachic statuses. Likewise, many rabbis (most?) know very little about the divergent opinions about pets and the various strategies that have been found to make pet ownership easier halachically. It is absolutely possible to own a pet with little to no halachic issues other than buying the right food.
These are some of the major issues that a community rabbi needs to know in order to serve the average community:
- The rules of what pets can eat, particularly no mixing meat and milk and no chametz during Pesach. (Though I learned this year that there is a possible work-around for animals who can't survive without chametz - other than "selling" your pet to a friend to petsit for 8 days. I'm afraid I don't know enough to explain it to you.)
- The various opinions on touching pets on Shabbat. People often say, "Pets are per se muktzeh on Shabbat," but rabbis don't always think to investigate the issue. That may have been true for much of history, but I would argue it's not today for at least dogs and cats. Of course, I'm no rabbi!
- The rules of Shabbat and yom tov as applied to a pet. For instance, which dog tags, if any, can be carried on a collar on yom tov? How should you carry the leash? What will you do with the poop? What would you do if your pet escaped on Shabbat or yom tov? What would you do if your dog were hit by a car on Shabbat? How will you take care of your dog's needs if the eruv is down?
- How to halachically neuter a pet (because your pet should absolutely be neutered!).
These questions are often machlokets and need to be decided before you're in the situation. For instance, when your dog runs away on Shabbat is not the time to hunt down the rabbi for a shailah!
Pet owners: have I forgotten anything major?