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Tristan, a black Labrador Retriever, was travelling through the state of Virginia with his owner John when they were in a car accident. Neither were hurt. In the ensuing commotion, Tristan panicked and ran off. John spent 5 days searching for his buddy by posting flyers, calling veterinary clinics and shelters and pounds. He returned to his dwelling in Maryland, some 215 miles away. John was terribly saddened to accept that he would never see his best friend again. Forty-three days later, Tristan arrived home. He spent the next 4 days at the veterinarian’s where he was hydrated and his wounds were tended. John can only speculate as to how Tristan managed to find his way back.

Stories abound of pets finding their residencies after being parted from their owners and there are several theories as to animal navigation;

Aware that homing pigeons are able to cross vast distances and arrive at Point B from Point A, let’s begin with our Avian friends. Earth has a magnetic field and birds can detect that pull. Migrating flocks apparently sense a field heading northward, for example, and follow it to their destination. Some scientists say that other animals may also sense this magnetism, but most likely that occurs in a weaker form.

It would seem that dogs and rats have an ability to follow scent trails. Interestingly, worms follow a chemical trail which gets stronger as they near their direction of choice. These trails don’t seem, however, to explain each species’ home coming, so let’s look further…

A rat maze may be a decent example of travel in mammals. Scientists say that a combination of sensory, motor, motivational and learning are the factors in a rat that is traveling from the beginning of the maze to the end. (Note, generally treats are used as the motivational lure.)

Memory seems to be a factor. Cats, dogs and birds can apparently recall something about their homes that consequently guides them. (A blind pet doesn’t take long to acclimate themselves to all items found in a given room.)

Sense of direction must play a role, scientists theorise. Mammals have tiny hairs inside their ears that move from side to side as they turn. This idea seems rather basic as that would imply that they know home is to the left, for instance.

 Animals, like humans, may have the ability to landmark, recalling a particular tree or fence as a guide.

Acute hearing in many animals also seems to be a plausible factor in a pets travels toward their dwelling. Cat’s ears are uniquely designed to draw in sound, particularly the higher pitches. A dog’s hearing is complex, but suffice it to say that they can hear sounds approximately 4 times that of a human being. Could they be associating sounds to places?

There are some neurological theories that animals have a capability similar to ours to form a mental map of sorts. This mental map would certainly be of value to a lost pet.

Tristan was traveling in a vehicle. It seems unlikely that he followed a scent trail to his home. Perhaps a magnetic/chemical field or a landmark aided him. Perhaps he had a sense of direction or a dynamic memory. Is it possible that he could see a map in his mind’s eye?

We have several pieces of a large puzzle. Should we speculate that all of these theories work together to guide our animals to their haven?

“When such great distances are involved, it seems implausible that even with extraordinary senses of smell and hearing, pets can track down their owners in places they’ve never been. That begs the question of whether pets have a sixth sense or some kind of psychic connection to their owners.”  – Petcentric.com

As scientists continue to research this phenomenon, we do not as yet have absolute answers. Let’s conclude with a touching tale of a cat’s journey home;

Jacob and Bonnie were vacationing in their RV with their beloved cat, Holly. They were 190 miles from home when fireworks frightened Holly who then ran out of the camper’s door. The retired couple worked with authorities and exhausted all possibilities of finding 4 year old Holly. Sixty days later, Holly arrived at a neighbor’s home, too weak and emaciated to journey the final few yards. Skeptics, upon hearing of this story, felt it was possible that this cat wasn’t Holly, but a stray that looked similar. Bonnie and Jacob had one up on the naysayers though- Holly had been micro-chipped 2 years prior and a scan proved without a shadow of a doubt that Holly was indeed Holly.

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
― Maya Angelou


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