Monday, January 2, 2023

Wayward Pets: How Do Dogs and Cats Find Their Way Back Home?

 By Cal Orey


(Excerpt from Soulmates with Paws)

 One spring day in a small town in Illinois, a black cat named Zephyr disappeared. “I was heartbroken, as was the rest of my family. He was truly my friend at that time,” recalls Cassandra Fink. Zephyr’s owners spend hours combining their one-and-a-half-acre yard and apple orchard looking for their beloved pet and fearing the worst. “We realized he must have run away.”

            Then one night the cat’s owners heard a soft meow outside and found Zephyr standing at the door looking well-muscled but extremely skinny. “The semi-trucks for the trucking company next door traveled back and forth to the city of Kankakee. We realized then that he had hopped aboard a flatbed semi and ended up there,” explains Fink. It had taken the cat two weeks to trek the 30 miles home!

            Zephyr is like countless cats worldwide who find their way home—even when home is hundreds of miles away. Many cat owners have tales of incredible journeys, and most have no idea how their cats do it. A number of these cases come to the public’s attention when they are reported in newspapers, but many more go unreported and unstudied. Those that are studied teach us a lot about our feline companions but leave us with as many questions as answers.


            Researchers really don’t know how these extraordinary cats find their way home. But they do have some idea about how some other legendary travelers navigate. Birds and bees seem to navigate by the sun, stars or moon. As for salmon, which swim all the way from the open ocean back to the very stream where they spawned, researchers think they smell their home waters. Other animals can orient themselves with the help of magnetized cells in the brain, which act like tiny compasses, and help them decide which way is north. Marine mammals may even use the sounds that rumble through the seas to get their bearings. “Cats may have similar abilities,” says renowned author and animal expert Michael Fox, Ph.D.

In a classic study done more 75 years ago, zoologist F.H. Herrick, of Cleveland, Ohio, took his own cat in a bag from his home to his office five miles away, traveling by streetcar. When he let the cat out of the bag, the cat fled. However, the cat returned home the same night, even though he had been left in an area he was unfamiliar with. Puzzled by this astonishing ability, Herrick put the cat in a closed container, took him various distances from his house—from one to three miles—and released him. The result:  The cat came home in a variety of situations and from any point on the compass. How exactly do cats do that?


            Animal experts also say the sense cats use most often and that gives them the most information is scent. By sniffing bushes and buildings along their route, cats can use the information they glean to help find their way home.

            “Cats have a very sensitive nose that equal dogs, and their eyesight is certainly better,” says Ted Cohn, DVM, at University Hills Hospital in Denver CO. “Certainly for short distances visual clues are very important.”

            Cats also use physical cues from nature, such as the angle of the sun to find their way. “They may be able to use the sun as a compass, as well as sensing a time difference between their own internal circadian clock and the local time. But the father away they are from home base, the greater will be the discrepancy,” says Fox. Therefore, visual aids and memory don’t completely explain how lost cats find their way over long distances.

            That’s why many researchers believe cats are sensitive to the earth’s magnetic fields. This sensitivity may enable them to find their way back home—even from hundreds of miles away. “A magnetic field can be described as a set of imaginary lines that indicates the direction a compass needle would point to at a particular spot,” explains Psychobiologist David Jay Brown of Ben Lomond, CA.

            It’s also believed that cats possess a homing mechanism that is triggered by brain cells containing magnetized iron particles. As they do with other mammals, these cells act like built in compasses. So, some cats, like a wayward senior striped tabby named Alfie, may have been guided by the influence of earth’s magnetic fields.

            Early one summer, Alfie’s owner, Elaine Hahn, moved to a new home in Palo Alto, CA, about five miles away from her old home. For the first few weeks after the move, Hahn received regular phone calls from her old neighbor, who told her, “Alfie is here. Do you want to come and pick him up?” For two weeks, Hahn got into her car and drove five miles to go pick up Alfie. He had not only hiked five miles each time to get back to his old house, he had crossed six lanes of traffic to do so!

            Alluring as it is though, the magnetic field theory doesn’t entirely explain the homing instinct, according to Brown. “If you have a compass and you’re not in the middle of nowhere, you can’t figure out the direction of your destination unless you knew your position in a certain geographical area. So, it’s really a big mystery.”

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