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July 18, 2011 / V A Nichols

Companion animals alert guardians to danger

Alabama tornadoes: Storm survivors may thank pets for danger alert

Published: Monday, July 18, 2011, 5:30 AM     Updated: Monday, July 18, 2011, 6:32 AM
Kent Faulk -- The Birmingham News By Kent Faulk — The Birmingham News
Gene Moore and Shadow 110718.jpgGene Moore and Shadow take it easy in the office at the Moore’s’ tire store in Pratt City. (The Birmingham News / Joe Songer)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama  — Carolyn Moore credits her poodle Shadow with saving her life from an April 27 tornado, even though the dog was at home with her husband miles from her Pratt City tire store.

Moore’s husband, Gene Moore, said he was asleep late that afternoon in their Gardendale home when Shadow began barking and jumped on him, which the dog had never done before. Moore turned on the television, saw tornadoes approaching Jefferson County and called his wife to close up the shop, which was hit by a tornado about 15 minutes after she and two other workers left.

“A dog can tell things,” Gene Moore said.

Tales of dogs or other animals seemingly sensing an approaching storm aren’t new to veterinarians and some pet owners. While research and studies on animals’ predictions of the weather are hard to find, animal experts attribute such an ability in some domesticated and wild animals to sharper senses and to animals’ simply paying closer attention to the warning signs.

Erin Jones, who lives in Tuscaloosa about a mile from the path of the tornado that struck that city, said her family has two dogs and several cats. “All of them alerted us, and each other, that the tornado was coming,” she wrote in an email. “Everyone stepped to serious mode, and the older cats herded the younger ones into a small space together while the dogs barked and growled and corralled themselves in a small room in the back of the house.”

Kelly Sumerel, who was living in the Morgan County community of Danville, said she believes her dog Lady Bugs sensed something was wrong early on April 27. “It was the strangest thing I think I’ve ever seen because she actually seemed totally freaked out by something. She couldn’t be still and whined constantly,” Sumerel wrote in an email. “Normally, you would never know she was in the room because she is so quiet.”

Self preservation

Several Birmingham veterinarians say they do believe pets, particularly dogs, livestock and wildlife can sense oncoming storms before humans.

“They have a very strong sense of self preservation .¤.¤. They’re much more in tune with Mother Nature,” said Larry Chasteen, a Pell City veterinarian.

Chasteen’s clinic has a beagle that will start howling 20 minutes to 25 minutes before the staff hears a thunderstorm, Chasteen said. “We know a storm is coming,” he said.

Wildlife, including deer, will feed heavily before a storm, Chasteen said. If woods are nearby, cattle will congregate among the trees before an approaching thunderstorm, a few veterinarians said.

Katie Stubblefield, a senior wildlife rehabilitator at the Alabama Wildlife Center in Pelham, said that before a storm the staff notices the birds stop coming to the feeders; babies will quit asking for food, and the adults will sit in trees or under ledges and hold on. “The adults will buckle down and sort of wait,” she said.

Researchers at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., noticed from their shark tracking equipment that sharks left bays and moved into deeper water prior to a storm reaching the coast.

How can animals, particularly dogs, feel an approaching storm?

Dogs have been recognized and used for years for their strong senses, particularly smell, said Dr. Jerome B. Williams, owner of Red Mountain Animal Clinic.

He said he doesn’t know if it’s the change in barometric pressure that dogs and other animals detect when a storm is on the way. “(But) they can sense that something is coming,” he said.

For now, Williams and other animal experts say it’s just speculation on how animals can do it because they know of no real scientific research on the subject on animals’ internal early warning systems.

Larry Myers, associate professor of anatomy, physiology and pharmacology at Auburn University, said while there is no scientific evidence, it is plausible certain dogs or animals, which have some different or sharper senses than humans, would be able to sense a tornado or severe storm before a human.

“(But) I don’t think I would want to depend on the dog as an early warning system,” Myers said. “I had rather trust the radar and the meteorologist.”

Differences in animals’ ability to pick up on sounds, vibrations and smells are among the possibilities why dogs or other animals may pick up on an approaching thunderstorm before humans, Myers said.

Dogs can definitely hear higher pitched sounds and may also be able to hear lower pitched sounds better than humans, he said. Elephants can definitely hear lower pitched sounds, which might explain why some people in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami reported elephants fleeing from coastal areas before the tsunami hit, according to Myers.

It’s also possible, he believes, that four-legged animals are more sensitive to vibrations because they are lower and more connected to the ground than humans.

A keen sense of smell could also play a role. The animals may pick up the smell of fast-growing fungi as the humidity — an ingredient for storms — rises, Myers said.

And it simply may be that some animals pay more attention to what’s going on around them because they have to. “They have to pay attention, or they’re dead,” he said.

Anxious pets

Veterinarians say that many dogs — not so much with cats — are so afraid of storms they have to be given drugs to calm them down. “This time of year we are prescribing so many sedatives,” said Dr. Andy Sokol, veterinarian at Caldwell Mill Animal Clinic.

Dogs are not born with storm anxiety, Sokol said, but it is developed over time. “Puppies are usually too excited to pay that much attention to what’s going on around them .¤.¤. As they get older they are more susceptible or sensitive to things around them.”

Patricia Daniels, who lives in the South Hampton neighborhood of Birmingham, credits her dog Taz with saving her life in an April 8, 1998, tornado that destroyed her house.

Daniels said she was unaware there was a tornado warning that day. She had just come home and didn’t hear a siren. Her warning was Taz, who started barking.

“I got up and went to the front door and heard this loud noise. It sounded like a train,” she said. She got into a bathroom. “If it wasn’t for his barking, I would have never gotten up out of the den,” she said.

Carolyn Moore doesn’t know why Shadow alerted her husband to the approaching storm, but the dog’s actions made a difference. “If I hadn’t been killed, I would have been hurt real bad,” she said.

News staff writer Val Walton contributed to this report
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© 2011


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