4 Times Animals Sensed Danger To Their Humans From History
Your cat might be incredibly intelligent and always know when you're having tuna for dinner, but can it predict disasters — or even death? The idea that animals can sense future danger to their humans has been a part of folklore in many different civilizations for centuries; dogs howling are an Irish harbinger of death, for instance, while Indonesian children's songs recommend running for the hills if "the animals go crazy." Is there any real truth to this? Depending on who you ask, perhaps.
It's not really being argued that your own pet can somehow pick up on misfortune like a stubbed toe before it comes to you. More subtle signals, however, may indicate various outcomes to animals, like natural disasters, before humans can sense them. Pre-tremors before earthquakes, shifts in the Earth's magnetic field, alterations in atmospheric pressure: all have been argued to drive animals into abnormal behavior patterns before big weather events, as they attempt to survive. And then there's the more personal angle: some domestic animals have been argued to be able to sense death, living up to somewhat sinister folklore. If your pet starts to behave strangely and you can't figure out why, it's entirely possible it's sensing something you're not — but it might be a weird smell, not an earthquake. Here are a few times in history when pets (literally) sniffed out danger to their humans.
1. The Saxony Dogs Who Wouldn't Calm Down
In a collection of folklore and superstition dating back to 1903, there are pages devoted to dogs, cats and their predictive powers, but one incident from history really stands out. It was 1553, before the Battle of Sievershausen, a brutal conflict that killed thousands of soldiers. "A few weeks before a great mortality at Saxony, the dogs assembled in great numbers at Meissen and ran yelping and howling dismally through field and forest," the collection reports. It's not reported what people did when they saw it, but the battle went ahead as planned, with enormous casualties.
2. Oscar The Death-Sensing Cat
Possibly the most famous disaster-sensing domestic animal of our times is Oscar, the cat who, according to workers at a dementia nursing hospital, accurately predicted over 50 deaths by curling up on the beds of patients before their appointed hour. (No, Oscar did not kill the patients.) A study of Oscar's behavior in 2016 reported, "Clinicians, having spotted Oscar’s uncanny ability for sensing impending death, did not buy a mass spectrometer to look for the ultimate particle of apoptosis or the aerosolized marker of death. They harnessed the seemingly unachievable feline ‘certainty’ to help families at a difficult time." Whether Oscar sensed declining body temperature or other signals of death before more obvious signals is unclear, but the thought of the predictive cat gave help and certainty to relatives of people in the nursing home.
3. The Pets Who Sensed The 2011 Japan Earthquake
Earthquakes in particular are thought to drive animals to wild behavior in the days before they arrive, likely because of pre-shocks or minor tremors undetectable by seismic equipment. In 2011, after the Japan earthquake, researchers conducted a study of pet owners to ask if they remembered their pets behaving oddly in the days before the earthquake. A small portion did, and what they described was striking.
Pet behavior before the earthquake, says the study, "included “barking loudly,” “being panicked,” or “biting owners” in dogs, and “hiding,” “being restless,” “meowing pathetically,” “taking the kitten outside,” “climbing a high tree,” or “disappearing” in cats." Cows who were near the epicenter of the earthquake also showed lower milk yields in the week before the event. The study relies on the memories of pet owners, but it's an interesting insight into the potential for some pets to sense tremors.
4. The Goats Who Predict Volanic Eruptions
The ICARUS Project, or International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, is currently conducting long-term studies to see what animals can predict about natural disasters and weather events, and their results are already rather puzzling. The project lead, scientist Martin Wikelski, told the New York Times in 2017 that they were hoping to build an "internet of animals," to interpret animal behavior and learn more about how it reacted to natural events.
Their most promising discovery so far has been a study of goats and sheep on the slopes of Mount Etna, a volcanic mountain in Italy. They monitored the goats over six years and noticed that, six hours before an eruption in 2012, they began to behave extremely oddly — long before anybody had picked up that an eruption was imminent.
Science is still figuring out what on earth animals can understand about their environments that humans can't, but with the rise of seizure-detecting animals and cancer-sniffing dogs, we're using the heightened abilities of animals to make our own lives safer.