Can pets foretell earthquakes?

It’s been speculated that animals are able to predict natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunamis. If this is true, could lives have been saved in Japan if people had been more alert to behavioral changes in their pets prior to the disaster?

Ben Hart, DVM, PhD, who has studied animal behavior for more than 50 years, has actually traveled to earthquake sites throughout the world to determine if animals do, in fact, have this remarkable "sixth sense."

Funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, Hart and his colleagues from the University of California-Davis interviewed hundreds of residents at quake sites in Chile, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States within two weeks following the event.

In most cases, only a fraction of these people – about one in ten – volunteered that they noticed unusual behavior from their livestock or pets prior to the earthquake.

However, while conducting his study in Northern California, he found as many as 50 percent of households nearest the epicenter reported that their animals were agitated or behaving differently prior to the quake.

So what is Hart’s conclusion?

"I don’t believe animals have some kind of spiritual ability to foretell natural disasters," he says. "But they do have extraordinarily keen senses that may be able to pick up on physical stimuli that we humans cannot see, hear, smell or feel."

Hart’s team only investigated quake zones where seismographs indicated there were no foreshocks that could possibly telegraph the impending event.

"In the tsunami that struck Indonesia in 2004, there were reports of elephants seeking higher ground prior to the waves approaching," he explains. "That could be because there were foreshocks an hour before the tsunami. Elephants would have been able to feel those vibrations with their large feet. We suspect that other animals might be able to sense these tremors and that would explain their agitated behavior prior to certain earthquakes.

"As far as that one instance in Northern California, we speculate it could have been changes in electromagnetic lines of force or perhaps the emission of radon gas or something our instruments weren’t able to pick up.

"There was probably a physical stimulus the animals were cuing off of. We just don’t know what it was."

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