After earthquakes and tsunamis, stories often circulate of animals acting strangely or seeming to know of the disaster long before humans. Following the Dec. 26, 2004, Asian tsunami, some (erroneous) news reports claimed that no dead animals had been killed by the tsunami (they had supposedly all fled to higher ground), confirming animals’ sixth sense.
A recent video showing a dog seemingly sensing an impending earthquake at a California newspaper office has popped up on YouTube.
What do we make of this? Is this evidence of a paranormal “sixth sense”, as some people claim?
Animals that detect impending earthquakes don’t necessarily have more senses than humans; they just have much higher sensitivity. The fact that animals have keener senses than humans is well-documented. Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell, birds can migrate using celestial cues, and bats can locate food with echoes. Elephants can detect faint vibrations and tremors (such as other elephants’ footsteps) from fantastic distances.
The mistake is in confusing that higher sensitivity with some unknown — perhaps paranormal — power.
Animals may sense unusual vibrations or changes in air pressure coming from one direction that suggest they should move in the opposite direction. If a herd of animals are seen fleeing before an earthquake, all that is needed is for one or two of them to skittishly sense danger; the rest will follow — not necessarily due to some supernatural earthquake-detecting sense, but simple herd instinct.
In fact, search-and-rescue dogs from around the world are being imported into the devastated country of Haiti as quickly as possible, their acute senses helping locate the thousands of missing and wounded victims.
Animals’ ability to detect impending earthquakes is interesting and amazing, but has nothing to do with ESP or a “sixth sense.”