Magical Sense of Direction

Pete Wedderburn
9th April 2020 - 3 min read

As a child, I remember reading the story of “The Incredible Journey”, about two dogs and a cat travelling across the wilderness of northern Canada. The animals made their way over 400km in order to be reunited with their owners, with many unexpected adventures on the way.

Finally, after surviving floods and attacks by bears and wild cats, the animals arrived home safely. They were thin, weak, tired and hungry, but at last they were with the people they loved.

I always assumed that “The Incredible Journey” was based on a true story, but I heard recently that it was a fictional account, written by Sheila Burnford, who was born in Scotland in 1918, and emigrated to Canada in the 1950s.

About Sheila

When Sheila’s children were young, they had three animals that were loved and looked after as part of the family.

Sheila wrote the story in 1961, as a testament to the special loyalty of family pets. Several movies have since been made about the book, so the story has become well-known to many people around the world.

So what about real life? There are regular reports in the media around the world about cats and dogs making epic journeys over many miles to reach their owners. We humans would be completely lost if we were taken to a new location and released without any aids like compasses, maps or smartphones.

How do animals manage to find their way? The truth is that nobody knows. Scientists have discovered that birds have magnetic sensors in their brains that seem to be able to act as a natural compass of some kind.

I am convinced that animals perceive the world in an entirely different way to ourselves. Perhaps detecting magnetic waves in a similar way to how we hear sounds.

Direction Tests

Experiments have been carried out where cats have been placed in boxes in mazes. The box is turned around and around, like a child playing Blind Mans Buff at a party. When the disorientated cat is released, it has to choose an entrance to exit from the maze.

Remarkably, most cats manage to choose the entrance which is in the same direction as their own homes. It is important to take these rehoming characteristics of animals into account when moving house yourself.

It is relatively easy to control dogs since they are generally kept on the lead, or in an enclosed area. Cats tend to live free, independent lives, and it is difficult to keep them penned up permanently.

The rule of thumb is that cats should be kept indoors in their new homes for a full two weeks before being allowed out on their own.

And they should be first let out when they are hungry, so they will be less likely to wander too far at first.

Adapting To Their New Home

There is a myth that cats’ feet should be dipped in butter before they are allowed out. But I have never found any logical reason for this, nor any evidence that it helps in any way at all.

Most cats do adapt to their new homes easily, learning their new geography over a few weeks. They put down new roots, just like their human owners.

In the end, all of these stories carry a simple message. Cats have an almost magical ability to navigate over landscapes and cover long distances. They are independent creatures, who do as they wish.

If they like home, they stay. And if not, they will travel to a place that they do like.

If you have a cat, and he or she stays with you, consider yourself blessed!


  • Many animals have a strong innate sense of direction
  • There are many stories of cats making their own way home if lost
  • If moving house, cats have to be kept indoors for a while to stop them going to their old home