Yes – at times.

“I’m just sayin…”

Packing up to bug out

The next time our family pooches start behaving in an agitated way for no good reason that we can see, we may want to check our disaster survival supplies – water, first-aid kit, essential medications, spare clothes, cash money, and the rest of what we need to cope with the Big One. And don’t forget our pet’s necessities. Fido and his pals may be telling us that another bad earthquake is about to hit the Bay Area.   We should heed what he is telling us. Scientific research tells us they are very possibly right. The phenomenon of animals knowing that something is about to happen is no longer considered urban myth. Research has shown that it is not a question of their having psychic powers but that they are responding to signals that they can detect – but we humans cannot.

For the longest time, behavior like this was seen as something eerie, straight out of the twilight zone. Accounts of it have come down to us from the dusty texts of antiquity. For example, the alarmed citizens of Helibe in Ancient Greece watched rats, weasels and snakes flee from their town. Soon after there was a devastating earthquake that killed thousands.

In our own lifetime we have had reports from Japan and China that dogs, elephants, cattle  and other animals behaved in a peculiar way before major earthquakes – pacing about anxiously, making alarmed noises, trying to run away, in some cases refusing to leave the security of their stalls and enclosures. Authorities in Thailand not long ago noted unusual animal behavior before a killer tsunami hit coastal villages. They acted on these signals and issued warnings to get out.  Who can tell how many lives they saved.

“This can’t be good.”

So far, efforts to find a foolproof way to predict earthquakes well in advance have not worked out very well. Tsunamis can be forecast when the earth movements that cause them occur far enough from land masses and islands but the reality is that today’s seismographs  probably won’t give us much of a warning before the inevitable ‘quakes take place on our local San Andreas or Hayward faults.

Earthquake experts say it is just a matter of time. So how will our pets – snoozing away on their beds and sofas right now – know when it is time to warn us?

When a big earthquake is building up, the stresses and friction deep in the earth’s crust generate electrical charges, the results of which dogs and other animals have the natural ability to sense. The scientists refer to the charges as “positive holes” and they have theorized that the charges rise to the surface where they ionize particles in the air. The electricity can also produce low frequency magnetic waves and lead to the development of toxic chemicals that react with organic matter on the earth’s surface.  These are signals that the animal kingdom can note and take very seriously.

There’s more. In 2001 satellites detected a 39 square-mile zone with an unusually high carbon monoxide level at Gujarat in India. Soon afterwards there was a massive 7.7 magnitude earthquake there and the scientific conclusion was that the toxic gas was squeezed from the rocks by immense pressures deep in the crust.

“I’m begging you, let’s go.”

All of that kind of activity – except of course the presence of carbon monoxide which is highly dangerous to humans – will probably pass us by and maybe we will just be aware of an odd smell. But the sense of smell is an extremely important defense tool for animals. Evolution has given them special sense abilities in smell, hearing and sight to help them know things are not right and precautions must be taken. If they are prevented from taking those precautions, they will become agitated.

Domestic dogs, tame as they are, have retained the natural defenses that exist in the animal kingdom. They can smell trouble; hence their anxiety.

If early humans also had some of these senses, they have lost much of it down the eons. For example, you and I have a measly 6-million olfactory sensors in our noses that allow us to smell pleasant kitchen aromas or anti-social odors best avoided. Our beloved pets outperform us hugely with some 300-million olfactory sensors that can tell them things we have never smelled – or give them advance information about things like the approach of people they love when they are still distant.

Of course there are other factors involved like the time of day when familiar events occur like a guardian’s regular home arrival.  But our odor probably accounts for how they can tell when their best friend is about to turn up.  We have all experienced this behavior in our pets. It’s not their sixth sense; it’s probably because we smell.


It is probably also the reason why dogs are thought able to predict death. There is an element of truth in this belief but with death being one of life’s most dramatic events it has been rather embellished down the ages to gain a firm footing in urban myth.

In the working class neighborhood where I grew up, the distant howling of a dog was often seen as a sign that someone was going to die. The possibility that the dog may have been distressed for some other reason or calling to other dogs in the style of their wolf ancestors was not considered. People would look at each other with narrowed eyes and say: “Listen to that – some poor bugger is about to die.” Sometimes they would add another element from the urban myth: that deaths occur in threes.

Those beliefs were exaggerations – but is has been established that dogs can be aware of imminent death and act accordingly, sometimes stationing themselves alongside the stricken person – usually a beloved family member – as if to guard or comfort them. Behaviorists believe this behavior comes from their awareness of the special smell that emanates from a dying body – again, those olfactory senses at work.

We train dogs to use their wonderful smelling senses – in health care, in finding missing people or bodies in natural disasters, in law enforcement for tracking illicit drugs – by turning those activities into jobs or even games. The dogs get rewards and we get results. Recently we told you in this blog how trained Malinois dogs were used for tracking down distressed rhino calves in the African bush whose mothers had been slaughtered by poachers for their horns. The dogs use their sense of smell and enjoy the chase. It’s a job they like doing.

“Dude, seriously. Can you not smell that?”

Smell is also the sense that enables dogs to detect illnesses like cancer and diabetes and conditions such as seizures – again from the odors that a body emits when such a condition exists. They are natural reactions to stimuli that we can train them to use.

On a happier note, dogs are also known to detect pregnancy in humans with their wonderful over-supply of olfactory senses. There are many known cases of pet dogs becoming especially protective of their female humans during pregnancy and then extending that special guarding relationship to the infant after birth. The dogs went along with their humans on the journey of life’s renewal.

Ripley had a special gift ; )


That behavior is known to exist even before pregnancy. Recently, we heard of a cat that became quite agitated when it became aware that its humans were about to have an intimate moment. How it got this information has not been studied. Since this is a family blog, we won’t pursue the matter – but simply record the fact that the cat settled down again to domestic bliss when all the excitement had died down.