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Homing Behavior in Dogs and Cats

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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We have all heard stories about dogs and cats that were dropped off or lost a long way from their home, sometimes thousands of miles, only to find their own way back. We ask, "How do they do that?" but perhaps the question should be, "Can they really do that?"

Although we continue to hear stories of dogs and cats traversing half continents to return home, these feats may not be what they appear. One explanation is that the pet fortuitously finds its own way home by hitching a lucky ride. Since there are only four directions to travel (east, west, north and south) some pets may wind up heading for home by pure chance. Also, some cats that are thought to have found their way home may not be the same cat!

Birds are the species best known for their ability to navigate vast distances, and the tools they use for this purpose have been the subject of study for many years. Below are just a few of the talents birds employ to accomplish this feat:

  • Direct surveillance of the landscape

  • Learning/memorization of geographical maps

  • Observation of the angle and position of the sun (and perhaps polarization of sunlight)

  • Navigation based on magnetic fields (by virtue of super paramagnetic sensory particles in the skin over the beak)

    Can Dogs and Cats Find Their Way Home?

    As long as the distance is modest and the dog or cat is in a familiar area, the answer to this question is yes. Dogs and cats often wander some distance from their homes and usually manage to find their way back. The real question is, can they find their way back if they are dropped miles from home in unfamiliar territory?

    One study, performed by a British psychologist, proposed that a hitherto undiscovered telepathic mechanism was behind the ability of dogs to find their way home from afar. The study showed that dogs were capable of traveling vast distances to find their way home but the study was dubious in its methodology, with the researcher's conclusions colored by his prior hopes and expectations - and by omissions. How did he know the dog had never been to the starting spot before? Did he take the owner's word for it? Were all visible landmarks out of the dog's line of sight, smell and hearing? How many times could this dog successfully repeat his trek from this and other more distant points? And so on.

    However, it is a scientifically established fact that dogs and cats do have an awe-inspiring ability to store mental maps. Their wild relatives had to run all over the place in search of food and had to find their way back. A lost dog was a dead dog. So, finding the way home had survival value for dogs, and those with the greatest talent in this respect would have the best chance of survival: Their genes would have been passed on.

    Wolves and wild dogs also have the ability to invent completely new routes from point to point, once they are familiar with the terrain. They appear to be extremely conscious of precisely where they are in the two-dimensional world of their own home range. They make reference to certain points, such as tall trees or odors, but these are not absolutely necessary for them to navigate around.

    How Dogs and Cats Navigate

    Like birds, they use all means open to them. Here are a few of the talents they may bring to bear:

  • Mental map making
  • Surveillance/observation of the terrain
  • Sense of smell
  • Hearing (say, of a river)
  • Magnetic fields (dogs, like birds, may possess super-paramagnetic particles in their brains)
  • The position of the sun (less likely than for birds because dogs often travel in dim light)

    The first four abilities are known to exist and have been confirmed. Using them, domestic dogs and cats can roam far and retrace their steps, or even return home by a new path. Allowing him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the British psychologist's observation on returning pets was correct, but probably not for the reasons he put forward. He suggested that dogs and cats could return home from hundreds of miles away, guided by some extra-normal sensory perception. That seems unlikely, but if dogs and cats, like birds, used the sun and/or magnetic fields to guide themselves home, that would provide a more reasonable explanation. Such abilities have yet to be substantiated in our pets, so who knows? It's a black box situation at present.

    Until more controlled studies are conducted, it is impossible to accurately answer the question about the long-range homing capabilities of our beloved pets. But even before the final word is spoken, let me say this: a pet dropped miles from home in unfamiliar territory is likely to be in mortal peril and unlikely to arrive home safely. Such a pet is unlikely to arrive back home intact and, even if it did, it would have had to run a gauntlet of natural and man-made terrors. Don't try this at home, or rather away from home.

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