Today marks the 25th anniversary of the most destructive earthquake in the Bay Area since the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.
Just moments before game three of the 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, fans were thrown from their seats at Candlestick Park and the world watched in shock as San Francisco shook for 15 long seconds and then watched as it crumbled—live on national television.
The 6.9 quake brought San Francisco to its knees. 63 people perished, a section of the Bay Bridge fell, homes in the Marina district went up in flames, Monterey Bay saw a tsunami, and several of the Bay Area’s major freeways suffered catastrophic failures.
But in the minutes before this devastation began, in homes across the Bay Area, dogs started barking, scratching, and fleeing their yards. With increased reports of strange canine behavior, scientists began to wonder: Can dogs sense earthquakes?
I grew up just south of San Francisco. I remember October 17, 1989 well.
I was outside with my own dog, Rascal. Rascal was a real dog. The kind of mutt that would survive on his own in the wild.
Not like my golden retriever Henry today. I think my lovable Henry might die of a broken heart if he lost his favorite stuffed animal, Nemo. No, Rascal was a real dog. And I think he knew.
Rascal began running in circles and barking—agitated. And then it happened. The ground quaked, the fences swayed, the windows rattled, and the patio cracked.
I grabbed Rascal and ran for cover. Did Rascal really know the earthquake was coming? Or was he just acting like a crazy mutt?
There have long been reports of animals behaving strangely before large earthquakes, including an account of snakes, weasels, and rats moving to safety several days prior to an earthquake in Greece in 373 BCE.
In the results, 236 of 1,259 dog owners and 115 of 703 cat owners observed strange behaviors in their pets. Owners reported increased neediness, barking, and howling in their dogs, and some dogs who were so restless they even escaped.
In 60% of the reports, these odd dog behaviors occurred in the seconds and minutes leading up to the quake.
Watch this video of a yellow lab panicking just seconds before a quake. Happy spoiler alert—the dog and people all get out safely!
Dogs have a wider hearing range and better scent detection than humans. Some scientists suggest that dogs can hear seismic activities that precede earthquakes (such as the scraping, grinding, and breaking of rocks underground).
Japanese scientists involved in the 2011 study think that dogs can detect “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.”
According to a study in Psychology Today posted by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., owners of dogs with poor hearing and dogs with floppy ears that might muffle sound, have reported far fewer incidences of odd behaviors prior to earthquakes. If their hearing is impaired, they are less likely to detect quakes, Coren writes.
Ok, so my dog just howled. He’s acting clingy. Restless, my dog is restless! Should I run for cover?!
Good question. For the sake of parents of barking beagles, howling huskies, and velcro dogs everywhere, I say no.
But don’t take my word for it. After our last earthquake woke me up at 3am, I leaped from bed in a sleepy haze and just laid on top of Henry.
I was far too tired to remember to get under a table or away from windows. I just shielded Henry instead.
If Henry did act restless ahead of time, I missed it. I was probably too busy dreaming about the San Francisco Giants winning this 2014 World Series to notice.
- If the ground starts shaking, do not try to hold onto your pet during the shaking. Animals will instinctively protect themselves and hide where they are safe.
- Get a “Rescue Alert Sticker” for your front door and at least one other window.
- Be sure your pet has a collar and tag. In addition, other methods of identification are available such as micro ID implants. Remember, even indoor pets need IDs in times of emergencies.
- Keep pets calm so they won’t bolt and run away. Keep leashes or harnesses handy. Cat owners should also have carriers ready. One note about pet carriers: the large, hard plastic types are much more durable, especially in protecting pets from falling debris from damaged structures, etc.
- Have bottled water, dry food and/or canned food ready. These should be easily portable. Don’t forget a can opener if you have canned food that doesn’t pop open. It’s a good idea to have a week’s supply in both your house and car.
- If your pet needs medication, be sure you have an extra supply on hand and ready to take with you as needed. A blanket may also be useful as bedding for your pet if you are forced from your home.
- Some pets will immediately hide when they’re frightened. Be familiar with their special hiding places. It might be a good idea to have their favorite treat or food ready to coax them out. In case of dogs, having them trained will make it easier for them to respond to your commands.
- If you have a first aid kit, look to see what also might be handy to treat your pet in case of injury. And you might also want to purchase a pet first aid book as a reference guide in case of earthquake or other emergency. Remember, vets and emergency animal facilities probably won’t be able to help you initially.
- After-shocks are almost inevitable in case of an earthquake. Be prepared to help your pet through them.
- Both you and your pet may be frightened. Try and do your best to remain as calm as possible so you can take care of the situation, and your pet. Keep your voice at a normal pitch and talk in comforting tones. Hold and caress your pet as a way of reassurance. You may find that your pet will also help calm you.
- Watch to see that your pet avoids contaminated water or items such as spilled cleaning products or chemicals. And watch out for frayed or downed electrical lines.
- If your pet becomes lost, check with your local animal shelter as soon as the emergency allows. In past emergencies, in different parts of the country, it’s surprising how many people forgot this first step in getting their pets back.
Top image via Flickr/Tiffany Joyce