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Pets' Amazing Abilities

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Dogs and Cats Finding Their Way Home From Long Distances

In 2010, an Alabama cat disappeared from his owner’s daughter’s apartment, only to reappear more than two months later at the owner’s home, six miles away. Two years earlier, an Airedale terrier was lost in a car accident in Connecticut and found his way back to his Rhode Island home - a journey of 45 miles.

No one knows precisely how they do it, or just how far the animals are capable of returning from. But domestic dogs and cats are equipped with several skills that allow them to retrace their steps from certain distances, Dodman says.

“Dogs especially, but I’m sure this applies to cats also, are incredible at making mental maps ... They know precisely where they are in space and time. It’s almost as if they have a built-in GPS,” Dodman says. Combine that with “amazing memories” and a sharp sense of smell and hearing, and there’s every reason to expect a dog or cat to wander home from a radius of 5 to 7 miles, he says.

“Could they find their way back home from 100 miles? Who knows? There are reports, and it’s not inconceivable,” Dodman says. But “the farther the distance gets, the less believable it becomes.”

Cats That Do Tricks

A gray tabby named Nora became a YouTube sensation a few years ago after she climbed onto a piano bench and began pressing the keys with her paws.

Her owners, one of whom is a piano teacher, say their piano-playing feline had no prompting from them. But they did give her plenty of positive reinforcement, in the form of laughing, clapping, and lots of praise.

That behavior isn’t all that unusual, says Beth Adelman, a certified cat behavior consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y., who observed Nora’s feats in person.

Cats can learn to play fetch, push faucet handles on and off, and even say ‘Mom.’ The same principles are at work whether you’re training the animal to do a stunt or just encouraging an entertaining behavior, she says.

“The way that you deliberately train a trick and the way you inadvertently train a trick are the same,” Adelman says. “This is true of all animals... You give them attention, you give them food, you use your happy voice, and they’re more likely to do it again.”

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Reviewed on February 14, 2011

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