From earthquakes to paranormal activity, our furry friends may sense much more than we do. What does animal communication research reveal about their extrasensory perception?
The phenomenon is sometimes reported by pet owners: dogs gazing at the ceiling or wagging their tails as if someone is petting them, though there’s no one in sight; cats staring intently at nothing, purring and playing with what appears to be thin air. Animal Planet even has a series called The Haunted, depicting unexplained experiences between dogs and their owners, like that of a Pennsylvania family who rehabbed an old house, only to hear mysterious noises, such as invisible balls bouncing and heavy work boots clomping around, and their dog barking ferociously at an invisible intruder.
The show features various teams of paranormal investigators, which adds a lot of fun drama but not necessarily legitimate research. That’s not to say legit paranormal studies don’t exist.
One notable researcher known as the father of modern parapsychology, Joseph Rhine, coined the term “extrasensory perception” and did extensive studies on ESP among dogs. After gaining notoriety at Duke University for his ESP studies in the 1930s and ’40s, he was secretly hired in the early ’50s by the United States Army to explore the possibility of using ESP in animals to detect landmines on the battlefield. According to the declassified records of the study, Rhine trained German shepherds in extrasensory perception for five months, though the training practices are not detailed. After using dummy landmines buried in the sand on the coast of California with two of the German shepherds, Rhine was confident in his initial findings, stating, “The success was high enough that it was soon evident that the dogs were alerting the mines before they set foot on the surface above them.” In further tests, fake landmines were placed underwater, leading Rhine to conclude, “There is at least no known way in which the dogs could have located the underwater mines except by extrasensory perception.”
Regarding similarly training cats, Rhine wrote, “Most of the things reported about dogs that suggested the possibility of ESP as a factor were also claimed for cats. Psychologically, the animals are close enough together to make a transfer of findings from one species to the other fairly likely.”
The extent to which the military continued the studies is unknown, but some deem the reports inconclusive, theorizing that it could have been the dogs’ sense of smell that led them to the dummy landmines. However, Rhine maintained that the accuracy was due to ESP.
Skeptics of paranormal animal communication in general argue that it’s simply their extra-keen senses in action, saying that dogs, for example, may simply be responding to a noise that is out of humans’ earshot, possibly in another room, not another realm.
Still, even if we set aside the concept of otherworldly encounters for a moment, we do know animals can perceive some things humans cannot, such as ultraviolet rays.
While the lens of a human eye blocks ultraviolet (UV) light, it has long been known that certain rodents and insects can see UV light. Only recently was it discovered that certain mammals can also see beyond the red-to-violet spectrum. A study led by researcher Ron Douglas at City University in London suggests that dogs and cats can see ultraviolet wavelengths. The study examined the eyes of numerous animals, finding that cats, dogs, ferrets, hedgehogs and okapis (relatives of giraffes) have lenses that do allow some UV light in.
But it’s not simply enhanced vision, or any of the typical five senses that set animals apart in their sensory abilities. Animals have been known to predict storms and even natural disasters, such as earthquakes. For centuries humans have reported strange animal behavior prior to earthquakes, dating back to 573 BC, when many of the animals in the Greek city of Heline evacuated days before a massive earthquake. While no scientific studies have been able to prove animals’ abilities to sense quakes, there have been reported instances where authorities have used the strange antics of animals to forecast large earthquakes, such as in 1975, when Chinese officials evacuated the city of Haicheng prior to a 7.3 earthquake, preventing thousands of deaths and injuries.
Most seismologists in the U.S. are doubtful of animal predictors, though scientists continue to pursue evidence supporting the idea. In 2003 Dr. Kiyoshi Shimamura made headlines with his examination of public health reports of erratic dog behavior prior to major quakes. After comparing reports of excessive barking and biting prior to major earthquakes, such as the 1995 quake that killed 6,000 in Kobe, to reports from the previous year, Shimamura found notable increases in erratic dog behavior in the weeks preceding major earthquakes. He presented his findings to seismologists in Japan, and while the correlation is intriguing, it warrants further research.
So what do these potential abilities tell us about animal communication and our pets’ extrasensory abilities?
Circling back to the paranormal, there may be a key factor of animal communication that we have yet to discover.
According to the Time Life book Psychic Powers, we may be thinking of senses in terms of our own human experiences, but there may be a different reality to consider. In the book, Stephen T. Emlen, a professor at Cornell University and leader in avian research, explains, “The term extrasensory perception implies unnatural, even supernatural, abilities. But research into the senses of some animals suggests that the line between sensory and extrasensory may be finer than previously imagined. Animals have sense organs that react to stimuli humans cannot even detect. For example, some birds hear infra-sound — noise in ultra-low frequencies indiscernible to human ears. Many migrate for thousands of miles, using sensory navigational skills scientists have yet to explain…. Birds are not living in the same sensory world that we live in. They are hearing, seeing and sensing the world expanded from ours.” Emlen’s statement holds true for other creatures as well. Marine animals communicate underwater with sounds beyond the limits of human hearing; schools of fish move and change direction simultaneously, presumably cued by signals. Flying bats are guided by their heightened sense of hearing; some distinguish between poisonous and nonpoisonous prey by using sensors on their mouths.”
If animals truly are living in a different sensory space from our own, dogs barking at an invisible intruder, cats gazing intently at the ceiling and rats evacuating an area prior to an earthquake may be perfectly reasonable. If we could jump into their sensory world for a moment, we could understand more. Science begs for hard evidence, but sometimes we come to our own conclusions based on personal experiences and observations of animal communication.