Do Animals Have a Sixth Sense About Natural Disasters?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Some animals seem to have a psychic ability when it comes to the arrival of bad weather. Okssi/Shutterstock

From cats that run and hide under the bed before an earthquake to dogs that refuse to go outside before a tsunami, there are plenty of stories about pets seeming to have a sixth sense about weather.

Although there's little science to prove the claims, the anecdotal evidence points to an animal's ability to somehow predict natural disasters.

There are records from 373 B.C. showing that massive groups of rats, snakes, weasels and other animals fled the Greek city of Helice just days before an earthquake devastated the area, National Geographic reports.

Similar stories have circulated through the centuries with other animals fleeing from other disasters.

In 1975, for example, Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of the city of Haicheng, based in part on unusual animal behavior. A 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit not long after, killing 2,041 people and injuring 27,538 others. But experts estimated that fatalities and injuries would have been more than 150,000 if there had been no evacuation.

In 2004, many animals escaped the tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed more than 230,000 people across more than a dozen countries. Stories began to surface about animals that had acted strangely in the days leading up to the storm: dogs that refused to go outside, elephants that trumpeted and ran for higher ground, flamingos that abandoned their usual nesting areas. Some questioned whether animals were able to sense the storm before humans and take protective measures.

From sharks to pets

scared cat under bed
Owners report that pets often hide in a safe place when bad storms are coming. Gergana Encheva/Shutterstock

Some studies have shown that sharks respond to the falling barometric pressure associated with storms by moving into deeper water to find a safe haven.

More than a dozen tagged blacktip sharks swam into deeper waters before Tropical Storm Gabrielle made landfall in Florida's Terra Ceia Bay in 2001. Similarly, when Hurricane Charley approached in 2004, tracked sharks moved to open water or disappeared out of range, their movements seeming to coincide with the changes in air and water pressure.

But even closer to home, there are lots of stories from pet owners who swear their dogs and cats know when bad weather is on the way. Some pace or hide, whine or panic.

A 2010 Associated Press/ poll found that about two-thirds of pet owners believe their pets have a sixth sense when a storm or other severe weather is approaching. They report that their dogs and cats do things like try to hide in a safe place, whine or cry, become hyperactive, or they become hyperactive.

What science says

dog sniffing air
Some research suggests dogs may be able to sense changes in the air before natural disasters. Cameron Cross/Shutterstock

Despite these anecdotal accounts, some scientists remain skeptical.

Some researchers chalk these stories up to "the psychological focusing effect," where people recall unusual behaviors only after a catastrophe has taken place. They say if the event hadn't happened, then people would never have remembered that their pet had acted in a strange way.

"What we're faced with is a lot of anecdotes," Andy Michael, a geophysicist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), tells National Geographic. "Animals react to so many things — being hungry, defending their territories, mating, predators — so it's hard to have a controlled study to get that advanced warning signal."

A few studies on animal prediction were done by the USGS in the '70s but Michael said "nothing concrete came out of it." Since then the agency has done no more research in the area.

But not all research is dismissive.

A 2011 study suggested that because a dog's olfactory senses are 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than a human's, they may be able to smell changes in the air before natural disasters.

Another theory is that animals pick up on infrasonic waves, which are very low-frequency waves triggered by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, lightning and other highly energetic natural occurrences.

So while scientists may not agree on your pet's possible psychic ability, if your dog and cat freak out for no reason, you may want to seek higher ground — or at least join them under the bed.