That sixth sense - can our pets really predict an earthquake?

SHOOK UP: Animals may feel early tremors but are not a warning system. Picture: Shutterstock
SHOOK UP: Animals may feel early tremors but are not a warning system. Picture: Shutterstock

Reports of the magnitude 5.9 earthquake in Melbourne this week were followed by discussion among companion animal owners about whether their animals' behaviour changed in the seconds, minutes and even hours prior to the seismic event.

Many asked whether animals have an extra-sensory ability to "predict" earthquakes.

It is an important question to ask.

Earthquakes are terrifying, potentially life-threatening, events that literally shake the bedrock of existence.

As a child I was in Newcastle during the 5.6 magnitude earthquake in 1989.

It only lasted seconds, but 13 people died and 160 people were injured - mostly due to the collapse of buildings or falling debris.

It could have been much worse.

In 2011, 185 people lost their lives and over 6600 were injured following a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch.

In their book Animals in Emergencies: Learning from the Christchurch Earthquakes, Annie Potts and Donelle Gadenne describe the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes on animals - dogs, cats, horses, fish, birds, farm animals, laboratory animals and wildlife.

Some lost their lives, many were injured and many more were startled and ran away.

Thanks to dedicated efforts of emergency services and volunteers, most of the companion animals who bolted were subsequently reunited with their owners.

When it comes to earthquakes, early warning systems could save lives by allowing people and animals to evacuate to safe spaces.

Which brings us to the question: can we really rely on animals to give us an early warning about earthquakes?

It is a question that scientists have been investigating in earnest.

In some cases, scientists have compiled observations from those witnessing animal behaviour prior to earthquakes.

The problem is that because earthquakes are often sporadic and unpredictable, it is difficult to verify such reports as the behaviour may not be repeated.

Another problem is that the behaviour may occur in other contexts, so it can be hard for scientists to determine whether behavioural changes indicate the sensing of an earthquake, or just a coincidence.

A review of 180 scientific papers around unusual or abnormal animal behaviour before earthquakes found weaknesses in many of these studies (Woith et al., 2018).

The authors did find that behavioural changes did seem to coincide with foreshocks - lower magnitude earthquakes known to occur before the main event.

It is possible that animals are responding not to a premonition, but to vibrations they are feeling that the humans around them cannot.

They may feel the earth move under their paws before we do, but probably not long enough to act as a reliable early warning system.

What we have learned from literature about previous earthquakes is the importance of including the animals in human care in our emergency planning.

There are a number of steps you can take to help protect your animal in an emergency situation:

  1. Ensure dogs and cats are microchipped and your contact details are up to date on the companion animal register.
  2. Provide a trusted family member or friend with access to properties where animals are kept, in case you are not able to get home to check on them in the event of an emergency.
  3. Ensure that animal carriers, leads and harnesses are in good repair and easily accessible.
  4. Know the location and contact details of your nearest veterinarian, as well as 24-hour veterinary emergency centres in the area.
  5. Always have a stockpile of at least three to seven days of your pet's prescription medication and food available, to minimise the risk of running out.

REFERENCES

POTTS, A., GADENNE, D. 2014. Animals in Emergencies: Lessons from the Christchurch Earthquakes. Christchurch: University of Canterbury.

WOITH, H., PETERSEN, G. M., HAINZL, S. & DAHM, T. 2018. Review: Can Animals Predict Earthquakes? Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 108, 1031-1045. Doi: 10.1785/0120170313

Dr Anne Quain BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL) is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.