An amazing thing happened recently. A child who was kidnapped long ago by a crazy drug addict has found her parents again.
It is the stuff that movies are made of, the sort of story that must torture parents of children who are still missing. Most of the missing kids will not be found.
The 23-year-old woman, Carlina White, says she always knew she wasn’t her kidnapper’s child. She didn’t have anything to base this on, other than a vague sense of knowing that something wasn’t right.
I cannot imagine meeting the mother you were stolen from as a child. And this made me wonder, do dogs and cats think about the parents and siblings they were separated from in early life? Do their mothers wonder what happened to them? Would they recognize them if they met them later in life?
A basic principle of evolution is that the fundamental driving force for any species is to reproduce.
Individually this means that a species will protect its close family members or others with similar DNA before aligning with strangers. You will protect your child before your sister, your sister before your cousin, your cousin before your friend, etc., because the closer the familial relation, the more of your DNA that person will share.
Thus, by protecting the closer family member, you are protecting your own imprint on the world.
So it stands to reason that nature will set things up so it is easy for people to recognize who is close family and who is a distant cousin, whether by smell, sight or some other deeply subconscious method.
Is it possible that other species have the same ability? The answer for dogs is: Yes.
According to the Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training (affiliate link) by Steven R. Lindsay, who is a dog behavior consultant and trainer in Philadelphia, dogs are capable of recognizing their mother and siblings later in life if they are exposed to them during the crucial period between 2 and 16 weeks, reaching the highest point at 8 weeks.
Here’s what Lindsay says in his book:
- A 1994 study “demonstrated that offspring recognize the scent of their mother … after 2 years of continuous separation.”
- Other researchers later showed “that dogs recognize the scent of their mothers after 6 years, and, possibly, as long as 10 years after separation.”
- “They found that dogs could recognize the hand scent of the breeder for 4 years and possibly as long as 9 years after separation” with no contact in between.
All of this makes sense not just for kin selection (a fancy term for favoring your closest relatives first) but also to keep the species from inbreeding.
The Secret Lives of Animals
Do dogs feel any sort of longing for their family?
That, we just don’t know. However, there are many documented cases of animals grieving the death of their young.
Animals have secret lives that we do not know about. I know my cats think and know things that I will never be privy to. Although it’s easier for me to read my dog, Lulu, she too has her own thoughts and feelings that will always be hers alone.
I would like to think that Lulu’s mom is happily living with a family somewhere, quietly enjoying what must be her golden years.