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, Caroline 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?
Perhaps. According to the Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training by Steven R. Lindsay, dogs are capable of recognizing their mother, siblings and possibly breeder if they are exposed to them during the crucial period between 2 and 16 weeks, reaching the highest point at 8 weeks.
This makes sense not just for kin selection (the fancy term for favoring your closest relatives first) but also to keep the species from inbreeding.
The Secret Lives of Animals
But do dogs feel any sort of longing for their family?
The mother who lost Caroline White at such an early age never stopped wanting to know how she was, if she was still alive and if she was happy. Is longing a human emotion or does my dog’s mother long for her lost puppy?
There are certainly many documented cases of animals grieving the death of their young. Is losing a puppy to a breeder or a rescue organization cause for the same grief?
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. Though it’s easier for me to read my dog, she also has her own thoughts and feelings that will always be just hers.
I would like to think that my dog’s mother is happily living with a family somewhere, quietly enjoying what must be her golden years.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave me a reply in the comments section below. You might also want to check out my previous post on animals that mate for life. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love Pets Adviser’s popular email newsletter. It’s free to sign up, and you’ll also be among the first to get alerts about major pet food recalls: Learn more here.