if you have seen the movie Bolt, then you may have wondered if lost pets can really find their way back home.

In the film, Bolt, a white German Sheppard dog with superpowers on a TV show, treks all the way from New York City to Hollywood (with a little help from a stray cat named Mittens and a TV-junkie hamster named Rhino) to be reunited with his co-star and later pet-owner, Penny.

Do animals really have a strong enough sense of direction to travel that far in real life back to their homes?

In the insect world, honeybees have a remarkable sense of direction and rarely get lost when they leave the hive to forage for food. Honeybees rely on the sun, visual landmarks, and an internal clock mechanism to find their way back to the hive. If the hive is moved in an experiment, after the bees are allowed to go back out to forage for food, they still remember where the food should be even after being confined for several hours. They compensate for the fact that the sun has moved and they still fly in the proper direction even with no familiar visual landmarks.

Did you know? Honeybees can fly long distances for food and still return home — in some cases they visit flowers 10 km away!

Like honeybees, homing pigeons have a remarkable ability to return home. In fact, they have been utilized to deliver mail because of their uncanny ability to travel long distances and to find their way back home even from places they have never visited previously. Experiments have shown that unlike honeybees, pigeons do not rely on a "clock sense." Even after pigeons are placed in a dark room to reset their biological clocks, they are still able to find their way back home. Homing pigeons may use the sun to help guide them, but a "sun compass" must not be the only way that they navigate: Homing pigeons can also find their way home on cloudy days, at night, and with frosted contact lenses covering their eyes. Scientists have found that homing pigeons become very disoriented when a Helmholtz coil is placed on their heads to disrupt their abilities to detect Earth's magnetic field, but only on cloudy days. Therefore, they must heavily rely on the Earth's magnetic field for guidance, but they also use other environmental cues (when available) to navigate back home.

Did you know? Helmholtz coils are devices that produce uniform magnetic fields.

In addition to the movies, stories abound about the ability of animals to return home. In 2007, Wanda Ploeger lost her cat Smoky after a tornado hit. After 3 months, her cat returned close to the location of her trailer before the storm hit. At the time of writing this article, there is a missing Siberian husky named Neo that may eventually find its way back home to Washington. Neo left Utah on April 4, 2009 and has been spotted in the Idaho area on his way back home.

British biologist Rupert Sheldrake has reported on accounts of pets, mainly cats and dogs, finding their way back home. However, he has not cited how familiar the animals were with their surroundings or how far they traveled on average. In experiments that he has done, most of the animals did not travel more than 6 miles.

Did you know? Most experts seem to think that if cats or dogs can find their way back home, they must rely on the sense of smell more than any other sense.

Since there does not appear to be any hard and fast evidence beyond a few personal accounts that dogs and cats are exceptionally good at navigation, your best bet is to invest in a microchip for your pet. A veterinarian simply injects the chip under the neck skin of your cat or dog and it remains there for life. A tag is worn on the pet's collar to alert people that a chip can be found underneath the skin. Shelter and veterinarian employees are trained to scan every stray cat or dog for a microchip. If there is a microchip, then the owner can be tracked down immediately. Your pet's journey would not be as eventful as Bolt's cross country trip was, but at least you would be able to rest easier.

Learn More!

Homeward Bound!

Smokey's Incredible Journey


Cat and Dog Navigation

Homing Pigeons

Jill K. Williams is a high school science teacher in CT. She has had many pets in her life including cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, fish and a hamster. Currently, she has a 2 year old calico cat named Izzy.


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