The Rev. Allen Kuss is a devout Catholic and the proud owner of a pug dog named Kiku-San.
Kat Swenson is a lapsed Lutheran and loves her cat Tricky.
Their choice of animal companions may reflect something bigger than their pets’ sweet faces. Turns out that dogs are more likely to be at home with the very faithful, while cats have an edge with folks who don’t show up for Sunday services.
The super religious, people who attend worship services several times a week, are the most likely to forgo any furry friends.
That, at least, was the conclusion of an unusual study examining religion and pet ownership published recently in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Author Ryan Burge, a Baptist minister and Eastern Illinois University professor, said it is the first study examining connections between faith and favored pets. He remains surprised by one of its strongest findings, namely the “negative correlation between cat ownership and church attendance.”
“And no, I have nothing against cats,” he said, laughing.
Swenson, a Twin Cities educator who is among Minnesota’s many cat admirers, isn’t so surprised. Raised a churchgoing Lutheran, she said she leads a moral life but without the rules of organized religion. She likes her pets to be free thinkers, too, and not to require rigid routines.
“I’m fiercely independent … and have very specific ideas on how to lead my life, about what I want to do,” said Swenson, 39, of Minneapolis. “I like how independent cats are. She [Tricky] does her thing, I do mine.”
Kuss, pastor at Church of St. Patrick in Edina where Kiku-San has a second home, said he was intrigued by the findings. But the priest wasn’t convinced that faith shapes pet choice as much as people’s personalities. Kuss believes dogs, for example, are the first choice of extroverts.
But what about the 80% of Catholic pet owners who have dogs? Is that more than a coincidence? Kuss conceded with a smile: “Well, maybe it could be.”
Kuss fits his own pet-by-personality theory. A gregarious man, he appreciates that “people are more likely to approach you if you have a dog.” He’s on his third pug, and unlike Swenson, is happy to meet his pet’s need for a daily routine.
“It keeps them faithful and happier,” he said.
Burge, a political scientist, said he decided to conduct the study when in 2018 pet ownership was added to the list of questions on the General Social Survey, a biannual survey conducted for decades by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
He and co-author Samuel Perry, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma, examined both the number and types of pets linked to religious affiliation on the 700 randomly selected survey participants who were asked about their pets.
They discovered some quirky trends.
When it comes to simply having a pet — dog, cat, fish or bird — black Protestants are least likely to have one. They average fewer than one pet in the survey, compared to nearly two for evangelicals, mainline Protestants and atheists.
Jews, with the second lowest percentage of pet owners, aren’t exactly feline friendly. None in the survey owned a cat, but 62% owned dogs. Jews were also more likely than other groups to own a bird or small mammal, and least likely to have fish.
Catholics and evangelicals had the highest level of dog ownership. Mainline Protestants and people of “no faith” disproportionately had cats.
Overall, people in every religion owned more dogs than cats.
How all this tied into church attendance was the next question. The researchers found that individuals who never attend religious services averaged about two pets in their household. Folks attending worship services several times a week have an average of 1.38 pets.
Burge speculates that the intense churchgoers get more of their social and emotional needs met at church and therefore may not want or need a pet at home.
He stressed that the findings represent broad trends, not absolutes, and that it is indeed possible to be very pious and own a purring kitten. “Everyone’s pet ownership is unique,” he said.
He admitted that he’s gotten flak from cat owners who claimed their pets were being painted as “Satanists and devil lovers.” But overall, people have just been curious and amused by the findings, Burge said.
Kuss is among them. A die-hard dog fan, he sees no need to preach from the pulpit about the superiority of pooches as pets. Kuss joked: “You don’t have to. We just know it.”