Can Your Pet Tell You When A Storm Is Coming?
By Brad Goins
Many scientists have no problem asserting that some animals can tell when major weather events are going to occur. For instance, scientists know that birds, which are extremely sensitive to changes in air pressure, seek shelter and hunker down before a storm. Or they leave. In a 2014 study, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley found that the golden-winged warblers they were studying all left their nests at the same time and headed for a far-off location. More than 24 hours later, major storms, including a total of 85 tornadoes, hit the area, killing 35.
Tagged sharks in Florida have been observed diving to deep waters in the moments before a hurricane comes to the area. It is theorized that the sharks sense changes in water pressure, and possibly in air pressure. The sharks begin their dives when the water pressure has dropped only a few millibars. They are reacting to a small — not a sudden and dramatic — change.
And then there are the animals that are considered the master prognosticators: dogs. Why are dogs so often associated with what are assumed to be anticipations of weather events?
Masters Of Weather Prediction: The Dogs
Dogs hear both higher and lower frequencies than people do. They may hear the sounds of thunder long before people do. (Also worth noting is that dogs aren’t distracted by the sounds of television, human conversation, music or cell phones. When they hear the sound of thunder, there’s nothing to keep them from focusing on the sound.)
While most people are no longer very good at foreseeing the weather, it is fairly common for people to say, “It smells like rain.” I’m not sure exactly what this statement implies, but I know I’ve said it many times myself and have had the experience of smelling whatever scent is in question.
If people can “smell” rain, imagine how well dogs, who have 20 times more scent receptor cells than people, can smell it. Dogs have 200 million olfactory cells. They can smell prostate cancer in human beings with a 98-percent accuracy rate. By smelling either human breath or sweat, a dog call tell whether the person has high or low blood sugar. High levels of humidity trap a wide variety of odors in the air. And lightning strikes leave the odor of ozone. If storms have a scent, dogs can probably smell it.
Dogs may also sense changes in barometric pressure and static electricity, which could all be signs of a thunderstorm, tornado or hurricane.
If dogs have any of these experiences, they may go to hiding places or places from which they derive comfort. If owners are observant, they may come to see these canine behaviors as predictors of stormy weather.
Can Cats Predict Weather?
As for cats, since at least the 18th century, sailors have used them as weather forecasters. The behaviors sailors looked for were grooming the face in an obsessive manner, running to a hiding place or even jumping off the ship. It’s said that some sailors who observed these feline behaviors refused to continue on the voyage.
These phenomena were well-known in higher circles of society. Charles Darwin’s father, Erasmus, wrote a poem titled “Signs of Foul Weather,” which contained this couplet:
“Puss on the hearth, with velvet paws,
“Sits wiping o’er his whiskered jaws.”
What are cats reacting to when they do such things? They’re sensing the clashing of cool air and hot air movements that proceed a storm. Obviously, they also detect the condensation and gray clouds these clashing fronts create. They will sense these things even if they are in a room. And if the room gets darker, they will certainly be aware of it as soon as it happens.
Allen Moller of the Natural Weather Service feels cats may find the atmospheric changes brought about by low pressure systems (where storms are always located) and the electromagnetic charges generated by storms to be stressful. By rubbing their paws over their face and ears, the cats are trying to lower their stress levels.
Do Pets Warn Their Masters?
If animals react to changing weather conditions, they are likely unaware they are doing so. And they probably aren’t trying to send warnings to their owners. For instance, a dog who runs behind a couch most likely is not trying to tell his master, “There’s a storm coming.”
Michelle Heupel, one of the scientists who studied the Florida sharks, told PBS, “When things change, [animals] may not understand why it’s happening, but the change itself may trigger some instinct to move to an area that is safer for them.”
In general, scientists tend to be skeptical of the idea that animals can sense the approach of major catastrophic weather events. That’s to be expected. Scientists won’t embrace phenomena they can’t support with hard scientific data.
But the scientific community is by no means anonymous about the predictive skills of animals. Researcher Liz Von Muggenthaler believes that animals can sense “infrasonic” sound pulses generated by extremely large storms and earthquakes. Hence the reputations of pet dogs and cats for “warning” their owners about earthquakes by their unusual behaviors.
Many scientists believe the animals are just reacting to sensations that they aren’t accustomed to and that they find threatening. Researchers find that when human beings can detect infrasonic sound waves they can become uneasy and nauseated. If that’s the case, it’s certain that animals as exquisitely sensitive as cats would find the sensations extremely disturbing and would take immediate action to lower their stress levels.
University of Georgia ecologist Whit Gibbons says, “I do not doubt that many animals detect certain natural signals, such as the early tremblings of an earthquake, long before humans. This means they have opportunity to react before we can. But to think they are reacting any differently from someone who runs for an exit at the shout of ‘fire’ is to give wildlife more credit than it deserves.”
And What About The Tsunami?
Gibbons extends this line of thinking to the fact that many animals were quick to flee the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, while many people were slow to react and, in fact, often wound up drowning.
Says Gibbons,“As far as running inland to get away from a tsunami, I think an antelope, flamingo or any other fast animal would probably do so because that’s where the forests are. Feeling a trembling earth, even if minutes before we would feel it, would not give much guidance to a running or flying animal other than a response to seek safety. The woods are the safest place for most animals, so when they flee from a shoreline, they go inland, which means not only woods but higher ground. Completely natural and not at all mystical.”
Bill Barklow explains the same situation in clear, dramatic terms that elicit sympathy for the animal sensing the “tremblings” or “infrasonic” pulses of an approaching disaster. “I think it’s reasonably unlikely that hippos or any animal has evolved behaviors to avoid tsunamis specifically. When they hear these infrasonic sounds that are produced by earthquakes, which happen very infrequently, they probably are just terrified of that very deep, heavy sound coming from a wide distant area and they just want to get out of there … They haven’t evolved an escape behavior for tsunamis, but they respond to infrasound.”
The Pets Who Left San Francisco
So scientists seem inclined to give animals a fair shake when it comes to picking up the ultrasounds that proceed major natural disasters. Other predictive powers credited to animals are still placed under intense scrutiny.
For instance, a California geologist correctly predicted the timing of the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 on the grounds that there was an unusually large number of notices about missing pets in the classified ads in the days before the quake. He theorized that the animals were fleeing the city because they sensed something very threatening was coming.
The U.S. Geological Survey was particularly hard on this theory, taking the position that the geologist was confusing coincidence with science. They mercilessly stated that “even simple science fair projects” require a higher standard of proof than was used for the missing pets theory.
The Survey left no doubt about its position on the idea that house pets and other animals can “predict” earthquakes:
“Changes in animal behavior cannot be used to predict earthquakes. Even though there have been documented cases of unusual animal behavior prior to earthquakes, a reproducible connection between a specific behavior and the occurrence of an earthquake has not been made. Animals change their behavior for many reasons and given that an earthquake can shake millions of people, it is likely that a few of their pets will, by chance, be acting strangely before an earthquake.”
I am not sure that every scientist would concur with all of these blanket assumptions.
Sixth Sense? Probably Not.
Some old notions about animal prediction of weather fall pretty clearly into the category of folklore. One such notion is that cows lie down before it rains because they want to keep the grass underneath them dry. But what research does exist on the subject strongly suggests that cows stand up when they feel hot and lie down when they feel cold. And, so far, that seems to be the whole story. The Farmer’s Almanac takes the position that cows lie down because they want to eat grass.
Those 18th century sailors believed that cats could predict storms because they had magic in their tails. There wasn’t too much science residing in that belief.
Some believe that dogs, or other non-human animals, have some sort of sixth sense when it comes to being aware of what sort of weather is on the way. There’s nothing wrong with believing this. But a sixth sense is not the sort of thing that climatologists, biologists and other scientists study. You can believe in the animal’s sixth sense. Just don’t expect to find any hard scientific data backing up the notion any time soon.