Can Dogs Sense an Earthquake Before it Happens?

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Introduction

Dogs are amazing animals that boast a remarkable array of skills and talents. They're intelligent, intuitive and have a remarkable knack for picking up on what's going on in the world around them. And throughout history, stories abound of dogs exhibiting anxiety and other strange behaviors in the hours before an earthquake occurs.

But why? Why do dogs (and some other animals) have the ability to detect that a major seismic event is about to occur? Are they psychic? Do they have some form of ESP?

Or, much more realistically, are they able to detect earthquakes using their strong sense of hearing or perhaps by sensing powerful vibrations in their paws? Let's take a closer look to find out.

Signs of a Dog Sensing an Earthquake

If you don't live in an area prone to earthquakes, these behavioral signs probably won't concern you. However, if you're based in an area where seismic activity is a very real threat, you'll most likely be glad to have your dog on hand to act as some sort of furry, early-warning system for impending earth tremors.

But what signs should you look for that could indicate a dog is sensing an earthquake? This is where it gets difficult. As the scientific evidence of dogs being able to predict earthquakes is fairly thin, there's no widely agreed upon list of signs and symptoms you should look for.

However, the key factor reported by dog owners who have witnessed their dogs acting out of the ordinary before an earthquake is simply any abnormal change in behavior. This could be an increase in your dog's activity levels, heightened anxiety, barking, whining, and even trying to escape or flee.

One sign that ties all these behaviors together is a level of agitation or distress not usually seen in the animal. Of course, there are myriad other potential reasons why your canine companion might all of a sudden start acting out of the ordinary, so don't take your pet's unexpected odd behavior as proof that you need to run for your life.

Body Language

Watch your dog's body language for clues they've sensed something you haven't, such as:
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Shaking
  • Pacing
  • Raise ears
  • Tense jaw
  • Back hair on edge
  • Ears up

Other Signs

Other signs to keep an eye out for include:
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Agitation and distress
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased activity levels
  • Trying to flee or escape

Dogs Sensing Earthquakes Through History

The first recorded observations of dogs acting strangely in the hours preceding an earthquake date back to ancient Greece in 373 BC. Accounts from this time tell us that dogs howled and creatures as diverse as rats and centipedes fled to safety days in advance of a destructive earthquake.

But there are plenty more examples from recent times. In 1975, for example, Chinese officials in the city of Haicheng became alarmed by the anxious behavior of dogs and other animals. They evacuated 90,000 residents from the city just a few hours before a 7.3 magnitude earthquake hit and destroyed around 90 percent of the city's buildings! 

Closer to home, when the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, numerous owners reported erratic behavior from their canines in the leadup to the 6.9 magnitude quake. Barking, whining, scratching and even escaping their yards — there was plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that some of the city's dogs had an inkling of what was coming.
As a result of this and several other reported instances of dogs acting strangely before an earthquake, scientists and researchers around the world have begun pondering the question, "can dogs actually sense earthquakes before they happen?"

The Science of Dogs Sensing Earthquakes Before They Happen

The jury is still out on whether or not dogs or any other animals can actually sense earthquakes before we can. However, there is a significant body of anecdotal evidence which, while far from concrete proof that our pets can predict the future, has prompted researchers to develop a number of theories about the quake-sensing powers of our furry friends.

One theory is that dogs can sense P waves from an earthquake. These are compressional waves that radiate out from the earthquake's source, shaking the ground in the opposite direction to the way the wave is moving. P waves move much faster than the larger S wave, or shear wave, and aren't usually picked up by humans. Because P waves arrive seconds earlier than the S wave, dogs might be using their impressive senses to detect danger before we do.

However, this theory doesn't explain the stories of dogs supposedly sensing earthquakes hours or even days before they occur. As a result, some experts have suggested that dogs could be using their powerful sense of hearing to detect the high-pitched moving, grinding and scraping of underground rocks that happen before an earthquake.

This theory is supported by a fascinating study by respected psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren. Purely by chance, Dr. Coren was researching Seasonal Affective Disorder in dogs in Vancouver, Canada, gathering twice-weekly data on 200 pets when a 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit the Pacific Northwest.

The day before the quake, 49 per cent showed a significant increase in anxiety levels and 47 per cent had markedly higher activity levels. Analyzing the data, Dr Coren also found that:

  • Of the 14 dogs in the study with hearing impairments, only 1 showed a change in behavior, and this pet was living with another dog with normal hearing
  • Dogs with floppy ears (which block out incoming sounds to a certain degree) had less of an increase in anxiety and activity levels
  • Dogs with smaller head sizes (which means they are more sensitive to high-frequency sounds) showed considerably greater increases in anxiety and activity levels

So, when it comes to detecting earthquakes, maybe the ears have it.

Training Earthquake Detection Dogs

While there are many theories surrounding the reasons why dogs have a sixth sense for predicting earthquakes, there's not yet any conclusive scientific evidence to explain how they do it. However, that hasn't stopped canines playing an important role as an early warning system in countries around the world known for their seismic activity.

For example, in May 2013, officials in the eastern Chinese city of Nanchang announced that the authorities were using dogs as part of an earthquake warning system. In the US, controversial geologist Jim Berkland accurately predicted the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake several days before it occurred. Part of his method involved combing classified ads in local newspapers for evidence of a larger-than-normal number of household pets listed as missing.

So, could quake-sensing dogs one day come to play an important role alongside high-tech monitoring equipment to warn of impending danger? For the moment, this idea seems far-fetched, but if dogs can be definitively shown to be capable of sensing major earth movements before they occur, who knows what the future may hold.

How to React if Your Dog is Acting Weird:

  • Don't panic. Chances are they're probably not warning of an impending quake.
  • From a change in routine to feeling unwell, there are myriad factors that can contribute to a sudden change in behavior.
  • If the ground does start shaking, take shelter. Your pet will instinctively do the same.