Ask My Vet: Can dogs really predict natural disasters? Do they know when we’re ill?

Ask My Vet is a series based on questions I have—and maybe you do, too—about dogs. Katniss’ veterinarian, Dr. Katharine Kennedy of Arbor Animal Clinic here in Austin, provides answers and expertise as a part of this series.

Question: Can dogs really predict natural disasters? Do they know when we’re ill?

Dr. K: “It seems like everyone out there has an opinion on this topic, and no one has any peer-reviewed data to back it up. I do agree with the majority of those folks out there. There are too many cases of pets cuing humans in to impending change to ignore the possibility that they can sense things beyond our own ability.

“Fairly well-documented abilities include dogs that can predict seizures in epileptics or blood sugar crises in diabetics. In these cases we aren’t sure if they can sense physiologic changes such as the ketosis that results from abnormal blood sugar, or if they pick up subtle changes in body language that precede a seizure event.

“Dogs have been noted to alert to an unusual type of seizure called a psychogenic nonepileptic seizure (PNE), in which the human has changes in brainwave pattern but no classical seizure event. PNEs are a messy, highly debated topic in human psychology. There are some thoughts that they can be triggered by stress events. PNEs can sometimes be managed with behavioral therapy rather than anti-epileptic medications. So the question arises: If the human knows that the dog alerts to a PNE, does it predispose the human to have a PNE as a response to the dog’s alert? Is the dog perceiving human stress and responding, or is the human responding to the dog?

Katniss predicted I was hungry once. I think. Does that count as her having enhanced perception?

“There are also some haunting stories of pets that have predicted deaths. For example, there is the story of the resident cat at a nursing home that was antisocial but had a tendency to visit with individuals shortly before they died. Does the cat just pick up on context cues and changes in staff behavior, or is he able to sense something that we can’t? There are also suspicions that dogs can sense other diseases, such as cancer, by sniffing blood samples of people and alerting people to ovarian cancer, melanoma and bladder cancer.

“Maternity boards are rampant with reports of dogs predicting human labor. I will say that several of my female vet colleagues have noted behavioral changes in their canine patients and pets when they themselves are in very early pregnancy, sometimes even before they themselves knew they were pregnant: excess salivation, teeth chattering, and clingy behavior. Do we send out unconscious behavioral cues, or are the dogs sensing hormone changes in our bodies?”

What about weather?

“I found one study of changes in behavior of the white-crowned sparrow in response to declining barometric pressure and a data study of unusual animal behavior preceding the 2011 earthquake in Japan. The sparrow study involved measuring various behaviors and metabolic changes while decreasing barometric pressure in a lab environment. They found that the decrease in barometric pressure coincided with greater food intake but didn’t seem to affect behavior otherwise.

“The Japanese study surveyed milk yields of dairy cows in a particular facility near the epicenter of the quake. They did note that the milking yields decreased significantly about one week before the quake. I would point out that a study based on a single dairy farm is not very strong statistically, but it is interesting, at least. Researchers speculate on the evolutionary advantage of animals that can predict weather changes and respond in a manner to keep themselves safer during the event. For example, if a sparrow can’t forage for food safely during a storm, can they eat more before the event to offset the inability to find food during the storm?

“The most common issue I see with dogs and weather changes is thunderstorm anxiety. Those dogs that hide and pee in the bathtub, frantically try to escape their crates or eat their way through a door when a storm is brewing are destined for a visit to the vet. Are their senses warning them to seek shelter as they would in the wild? Have we bred them to respond inappropriately to what would otherwise be a normal event for them?

“I think every post I’ve written for you so far ends with that frustrating inability to just be able to ask our pets what they think, how they feel and WHY they do the things they do. Alternately, it is a prime moment to sit back and marvel at the wonders of the world we are part of. We are tiny pieces of a gigantic and amazing web of life. The more questions we answer about or world, the more questions we have to ask.”

Kennedy cannot provide medical recommendations to individuals or groups that are not established clients with a current client-patient relationship. She will also not share personal information of clients with though she may discuss general medical details not associated with specific individuals.

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