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Dogs are amazing creatures, and some of their skills seem almost supernatural. Of course, it isn’t magic that gives dogs their extra-special abilities; they’re simply able to sense things outside human perception. For example, they can smell odors and hear high-pitched noises undetectable to us. Is it possible that those super senses can help them predict earthquakes, too?

Do Dogs React Strangely Before an Earthquake?

As far back as 373 B.C.E., there have been reports of animals behaving strangely in advance of an earthquake. You’ve likely heard stories of dogs acting in unusual ways anywhere from seconds to days before an earthquake strikes. In fact, a recent study of an earthquake in a region of Siberia noted that a small, but significant number of dogs showed anxious behaviors, including barking for no reason, howling, whining, and running around, minutes to hours before the earthquake occurred.

Another research study asked whether animals can predict earthquakes by looking at 729 reports of abnormal animal behavior before earthquakes. Animals in the study included dogs as well as cats, birds, cows, elephants, toads, and fish. The scientists discovered that many abnormal animal behaviors were reported as having occurred within one day before an earthquake, with most happening in the hour beforehand. And of those reported to have occurred in that hour, almost 60% were within the last five minutes. So, animals seem to be reacting strangely before earthquakes occur, at least by a few minutes.

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Are Dogs Really Sensing an Oncoming Earthquake?

But when people report odd animal behavior, is it only through the lens of hindsight? In other words, after an earthquake, are we more likely to attribute odd behavior to that earthquake rather than dismissing it as our dog having an off day? For example, maybe your dog howls every so often for unknown reasons. But if they howl the day before an earthquake, you’re more likely to remember and blame it on the tremor.

Another research study that evaluated potential short-term earthquake forecasting by farm animal monitoring decided to eliminate that hindsight. The scientists continuously observed the activity of farm animals, including cows, sheep, and dogs, on a farm in Italy during a period of expected earthquake activity. Then, they compared the typical behavior of the animals when there was no earthquake activity to any abnormal behavior in the times before earthquakes occurred. They found the animals repeatedly showed unusually high activity levels prior to an earthquake. The sooner the animals reacted, from 20 hours to one hour, the closer they were to the earthquake’s epicenter (the location on the earth’s surface directly above where the earthquake started).

Can Dogs Help Us Predict Earthquakes?

Just because dogs and other animals may behave strangely before an earthquake, doesn’t mean they know an earthquake is on the way. It’s far more likely they’re sensing and reacting to something unusual without knowing what it foretells – something we aren’t aware of. Even the most sophisticated equipment fails to predict earthquakes. But can we use the behavior of animals like dogs in place of instrumental surveillance? Researchers recently proposed that crowdsourcing and social media might help us to predict earthquakes. They developed a prototype that would use social media posts about abnormal animal behavior, such as dog barking, to help warn of oncoming earthquakes.

Unfortunately, there’s no conclusive scientific evidence yet that dogs can predict tremors. And we still don’t know what dogs and other animals might be reacting to, even if they could warn us with their actions. Some scientists think they could be sensing foreshocks (smaller earthquakes that occur before the larger earthquake) or acoustic waves generated by the movement of underground rocks. It could even be the ionization of air at pressurized rock surfaces, changes in electrical fields, or the release of unpleasant-smelling chemicals.

Rottweiler laying down in the yard its head tilted.
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How Do Dogs Sense Oncoming Earthquakes?

Dr. Stanley Coren suggested one possible method of early earthquake detection by dogs. He was conducting a study on whether dogs can have Seasonal Affective Disorder when, by chance, he collected data on activity and anxiety levels in 200 dogs the day before a level 6.8 earthquake hit the Pacific Northwest. On the day before the earthquake, 49% of the dogs showed a significant increase in anxiety, and 47% were considerably more active. This was a sharp increase from the steady day-to-day averages collected to that point.

The coming earthquake seems the most likely explanation for the changes in the dogs’ behavior. But what were they sensing? Dr. Coren suspected they were hearing the high-pitched, underground seismic activity of rocks grinding and scraping together that happens before an earthquake. Fourteen of the dogs in his study had hearing impairments, and all but one of them didn’t show the increased activity and anxiety of the other dogs. Perhaps they were unable to detect what was bothering their fellow canines. Interestingly, the one hearing-impaired dog that did respond with anxiety lived with a dog that could hear, so they may have been reacting to a change in the housemate’s behavior.

Dr. Coren also looked at ear shape because ear flaps, like those seen in floppy-eared dogs, partially block incoming sounds. He divided the dogs in his study into those with prick ears and those with floppy ears. The dogs with prick ears showed more increase in activity and anxiety the day before the earthquake than those with floppy ears, possibly because they were able to hear more of the seismic activity.

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The dogs were also grouped in Dr. Coren’s study according to the size of their heads. Mammals with smaller heads can hear higher frequencies better than mammals with larger heads, so those dogs with smaller heads should have sensed more of the earthquake predictor sounds. In fact, the dogs with the smallest head sizes tended to show a far greater increase in activity and anxiety levels before the quake, compared to the dogs with the largest head sizes. This provides further potential evidence that it’s high-frequency seismic sounds that are alerting dogs to an upcoming earthquake.

Dr. Coren’s research hints at one possible earthquake precursor dogs could be noticing. But with their incredible senses, there could be others or even a combination of factors. Although we don’t know exactly what could be triggering behavioral shifts prior to a tremor, the data is stacking up that animals like dogs are reacting before even our most sophisticated measuring devices. Perhaps in the future, dogs could provide yet another service to humanity and help warn us of potential disasters, too.