With the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in Indonesia and other natural disasters, people often wonder if a dog sense a natural disaster. Scientifically, the evidence about whether a dog can sense a natural disaster seems to be inconclusive. Some owners claim that their dogs have warned them immediately before an earthquake has occurred.
In 2003 a Japanese doctor claimed that public health records showed an excessive amount of dog barking before the 1995 Kobe earthquake but seismologists were skeptical. A geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey office claims that he can predict earthquakes based on the number of missing pet ads in earthquake-prone areas — his theory being that pets often leave an area before a big earthquake.
However, a three-year study found no evidence to support his claims. On the other hand, many people remarked on the surprising lack of animal carcasses following the tsunami in Indonesia, suggesting that animals knew in advance about the devastating tsunami and got out of the area.
One theory is that animals, including dogs, can detect underground rumblings and vibrations prior to an event. However, this kind of foreknowledge would be an extension of the animals’ normal senses and not some kind of mystical ability to forecast natural disasters. Since we can’t ask dogs and it’s hard to predict where or when an earthquake or other natural disaster will occur, it’s hard to set up any kind of scientific test to confirm whether a dog can sense a natural disaster before it occurs.
Dogs do have some senses that are more acute than our human senses and it’s possible that they may be able to pick up on sounds and vibrations before they’re apparent to people. It is true that dogs are able to predict other things before they occur, such as seizures. But, here again, dogs seem to be relying on picking up physical and chemical signals before they are noticed by humans.
Dogs are certainly able to use their senses in other ways that often seem nearly miraculous to us, such as traveling hundreds of miles to return home after they’ve been lost, so it seems possible that dogs could use a combination of instinct and their senses to sense a natural disaster before it occurs. It should also be mentioned that dogs are used extensively in the aftermath of natural disasters to find survivors and to help locate the dead.
Without the help of these highly-skilled dogs and their keen senses it would be much more difficult to help people recover from natural disasters. We all owe a debt of thanks to these great dogs and their handlers.