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Unfortunately large earthquakes cause severe damage to property and people. Often they occur without warning and can be difficult to predict. However, anecdotal evidence suggests unusual animal behaviours are exhibited prior to natural disasters taking place. While there is very little research into this area, one study released this year has been delving into this fascinating phenomenon.

At 2.45pm on 11th March 2011, the people of Japan experienced a terrifying earthquake that measured 8.9 on the Richter scale. Hundreds of people were killed and the huge earthquake triggered a 30ft tsunami which crashed through Japan’s eastern coastline, sweeping buildings, boats, cars and people miles inland, and caused a nuclear reactor emergency.

Now, for the first time, a group of scientists from Japan have surveyed pet owners to investigate cat and dog behaviour – and changes in dairy milk production before the ‘super quake’ of 2011 hit.

The study led by Hiroyuki Yamauchi used demographic information about pets and gained reports from owners relating to any unusual behaviour displayed in the minutes, hours and days leading up to earthquake. The national survey included a checklist of behaviours such as barking, howling, trembling, being restless and escaping. More than 1,200 dog owners and 703 cat owners participated in the research study, and the questionnaire was distributed far and wide, with post codes included in the data so the team could monitor the distance the animal lived from the quake’s epicentre.

Furthermore, Yamauchi and his team analysed existing data about the amount of milk produced by dairy cows at milking facilities in three different locations; Ibaraki (340km from the epicentre), and at Kanagawa and Shizuoka – both further away. Milk production for each day from 1st January 2011 to 31st March 2011 was examined. Milk production was included within the study with the reasoning that if cows are able to predict an earthquake, they will be stressed and therefore make less milk.

So what were the results?

Of the pet owners that reported unexpected behaviours in their dogs, 60 per cent of these observed changes in the seconds and minutes immediately before the earthquake hit. While just under 17 per cent of dog owners said the changes in behaviour occurred between one and a few hours beforehand. Of the cat owners that reported unusual behaviour, 44.6 per cent observed changes immediately before the event and 30.4 per cent in a few hours prior to the earthquake. However, some pet owners reported unusual behaviours six or more days before the event.

The behaviours most commonly reported were of the dogs and cats being restless and wanting to be close to the owner.

The study had a geographical range between 140km to 2,350km from the epicentre. The results showed that unexplained behaviours were reported by 18.7 per cent of dog owners that lived up to 2,350km away and 16.4 per cent of cat owners that lived 1,950km from the epicentre.

However, one could argue that a problem with conducting such research ‘after-the-fact’ is those participating in the study may have misremembered events. That’s why the physical data recorded during this time from the milk production facilities is so useful. In Kanagawa and Shizuoka (further from the epicentre), the researchers found no changes in milk production in the time leading up to the quake. However, in Ibaraki and its surrounding areas, the cows produced significantly less milk on 11th February, as well as the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th days of March – the earthquake occurred on the 11th March.

Yamauchi et al says: “The facility in Ibaraki showed lowered milk production six days before the earthquake. The decrease in milk yield continued for four days. This might be because Ibaraki was the closest of the three institutes to the epicentre. If so, milk yield might be useful as an earthquake precursor. Furthermore, these decreases of milk-yields were probably not caused by fear responses to the earthquake’s shaking, because no seismic swarms (clusters of earthquakes closely spaced in time and area that do not have a defined main shock) occurred near the location of the institute in Ibaraki Prefecture from the 5th to 8th March 2011.”

Why might animals be able to detect natural disasters?

Animals have a far superior sense of smell and wider hearing range than we do. There are several factors that may occur prior to an earthquake. According to the researchers, this includes “changes in atmospheric pressure, changes in gravity, ground deformation (ground uplift and tilt changes), acoustic signals and vibrations due to the generation of micro cracks, ground water level changes, and emanations of gases and chemical substances.”

So, it appears from the results of this study that it might be possible for our pets to predict an impending earthquake. Click here to read the full study.

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