Welcome back to “Debarking Pet Myths,” a monthly series dedicated to addressing common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.
The belief that animals, including our canine companions, can predict earthquakes and other natural disasters has been around for centuries. You can find plenty of stories about animals behaving strangely or fleeing an area before a major earthquake, tsunami or hurricane strikes. For example:
- In India, eyewitnesses reported that elephants broke free and ran for higher ground before the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami.
- Researchers examined groundwater for chemical changes after toads abandoned their pond five days before an earthquake struck L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009.
- In Florida, researchers studying tagged sharks observed that the fish flee to deeper water just before a big hurricane arrives.
But can your dog predict or provide an early warning that a big earthquake is about to shake things up?
Maybe. But maybe not.
Researchers in Japan, one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, have conducted most of the studies that have investigated what animals hear or feel before an earthquake so they can use that sense as a prediction tool. The most common unusual behavior displayed by dogs and cats prior to an earthquake was found to be restless behavior. However, scientists also concluded that more research is needed.
American seismologists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are skeptical, especially since many studies ask pet owners to recall changes in pet behavior after the quake occurred. USGS scientists have also studied animals’ ability to predict earthquakes — back in the 1970s. They didn’t find a reproducible connection between a specific behavior and the occurrence of an earthquake. In fact, USGS researchers had this to say about their findings:
Changes in animal behavior cannot be used to predict earthquakes. Even though there have been documented cases of unusual animal behavior prior to earthquakes, a reproducible connection between a specific behavior and the occurrence of an earthquake has not been made. Because of their finely tuned senses, animals can often feel the earthquake at its earliest stages before the humans around it can. This feeds the myth that the animal knew the earthquake was coming. But animals also change their behavior for many reasons, and given that an earthquake can shake millions of people, it is likely that a few of their pets will, by chance, be acting strangely before an earthquake.
That being said, many scientists agree that animals hear and feel things that humans can’t and that they use their senses, especially hearing, very efficiently. For example, elephants are among a handful of animals known to be able to hear “infrasound,” sound with frequencies below 20 hertz (Hz). Infrasound can travel long distances through the ground, air and water, and is produced by natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes. In fact, earthquakes produce several distinct infrasound pulses that can travel thousands of miles, and hurricanes produce their own distinctive infrasound signature. Knowing this, researchers suspect some animals — such as elephants — can hear danger approaching.
What about dogs?
Dogs can hear sounds created by a substantially wider frequency range than people. Their sense of hearing is second only to their keen sense of smell. While human hearing covers an audible range of 31 to 17,000 hertz (Hz), dogs hear sounds in the frequency range of 67 Hz to 44,000 Hz. Although the audible range can vary among dogs and with the loudness of the sound, it’s unlikely that dogs hear infrasound.
Other researchers suspect that the canine sense of smell, which is 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than the human sense, may allow them to detect electrical changes in the air or gases released from the earth before a storm or other natural event.
Precisely what animals sense, if anything, remains to be determined — and it could remain a mystery for decades to come. Until we better understand animal behavior, relying on your dog to predict natural disasters could prove dangerous. Awareness and preparedness are the keys to surviving sudden, unpredictable and unpreventable events. Know what could happen where you live, have an emergency kit with necessities, and have a plan in place in case the unthinkable happens.
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