Scientists and popular media have investigated the issue, and no firm conclusion has been drawn. The answer is unknown whether your canine friend's behavior can warn you of a coming earthquake.
Ancient Historical Evidence
National Geographic News tells us the belief that animals can predict earthquakes has been around for centuries. In its listings of historical earthquakes and their impacts, Think Quest identifies the Greek historian Strabo as recording the aftermath when a massive quake struck Helice in 373 BCE; historians record that days prior to the event, people noticed animals of all sorts -- dogs, cats, weasels, rats and even snakes -- leaving their habitats in and around the city. Greek historical reports indicate bees leaving their hives prior to the quake and not returning for several days afterward.
Chinese Dogs Sound Alarm
At his website detailing the events leading up to and following massive earthquakes across the globe, seismologist Dr. George Paranas-Carayannis gives credit to canines as providing early detection and warning. In his report regarding a 7.0-magnitude quake that hit Haicheng, China, on February 4, 1975, he notes that Chinese officials credited the erratic and unusual behavior of dogs and other animals as one reason for government-ordered evacuation. This combined with the minor constant tremors occurring in the area caused officials to take action.
A Tale of 200 Dogs
Psychology Today reports on a seasonal affective disorder study in Canada involving 200 dogs that was briefly interrupted by an earthquake in Washington State. Dr. Stanley Coren, a psychology professor, was collecting daily owner-observed data from September of the previous year through April 2001 when the input from February 27, 2001, grabbed his attention. Nearly 50 percent of the dog owners in the study described their canines as having highly increased activity and anxiety levels. The next day a 6.8-magnitude quake struck nearby.
While far from scientific but much more in line with anecdotal observations, several reports add to the debate regarding dogs as effective alarm sounders: National Geographic News gave a nod to reports by local survivors of dogs refusing to leave buildings just prior to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In April 2009, British researchers studying a toad breeding site in central Italy noticed a massive exodus of toads one day according to a report at Finding Dulcinea. Five days later, April 6, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck nearby L'Aquila, killing 150 people. Japanese researcher Mitsuaki Ota, a veterinary science professor at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan, bases his belief in dogs as potential signalers on a study he did of government records made the week prior to the 7.2-magnitude earthquake hitting Kobe, Japan, on January 17, 1995. Analysis of animal control and health department records bear out a significant increase in reports of barking and nuisance dogs days prior to the quake. Survivors report insistent dogs making their human companions to take them outside just before the quake hit, crumbling many of the buildings they occupied.
The U.S. Geological Survey looked into the matter of earthquakes and dogs and suggests reports by dog owners regarding their canine friend's pre-earthquake behavior may simply be man's way of re-connecting with his best friend after a trauma, or may indeed be a signaling effort. Ultimately the USGS preliminarily concluded only that it's possible. The USGS website notes that humans are not sensitive enough to feel the smaller, faster wave released at the same time as a larger, slower-moving wave when an earthquake occurs. Since dogs possess keener senses than humans, it is possible they notice the precursors of earthquakes such as ground tilting, groundwater changes and variations in electrical or magnetic fields long before humans do. The USGS indicated further research is necessary before an definitive answer can be determined.
By Amy M. Armstrong
U.S.Geological Survey: Animals and Earthquake Prediction
National Geographic News: Can Animals Sense Earthquakes?
Psychology Today: Can Dogs Predict Earthquakes?
Finding Dulcinea: Librarian of the Internet: Can Animals Sense Earthquakes Before They Strike?
Mind Power News: Experts Claim Dogs and Cats Can Predict Earthquakes
Think Quest: Earthquakes: Case Studies
U.S. Geological Survey: Historic Earthquakes: Haicheng, China
Dr. George PC: The Earthquake Of February 4, 1975 in Haicheng, China
PBS: Can Animals Predict Disaster?
About the Author
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.