By Robin M. Strom-Mackey
“While there is a prevailing belief that animals can sense things paranormal, I would suggest you first seek out explanations based in the, well, normal first.”
I’m asked more often about pets and the paranormal than any other topic of discussion. Why is Fido acting afraid in the kitchen or barking at the wall in the den? Could, should we consider the paranormal? This always leaves me in a bit of a quandary because I’m a paranormal researcher, not an animal behaviorist. So I hit the internet and the books for evidence for and against. I will speak primarily of dogs, with no disrespect to cat people, but the last three inquiries were specifically about dogs. My line of questioning was simply what can make an otherwise normal-acting animal start to act weird? What I found is that there are many sources for anxiety in animals, one of which may be sensitivity to the paranormal.
Egg on your Face
The worst thing I feel a paranormal investigator can do is to label something paranormal before exploring the more rational explanations. If you come out on the side of the paranormal when something normal is proven you look all the more like an idiot. Case in point:
The Animal Planet channel hosts a television show entitled The Haunted which “chronicles” the haunting experiences of animals and their terrified owners. One particular episode is about a young couple who move into an older home with their beloved pet rabbits. This particular couple was very free with their furry friends, letting the rabbits out of their cages to roam free about the house. Not long after moving into the home they noticed that the rabbits were becoming sick and dying. Saddened beyond words at the tragedy unfolding, the couple concluded that negative spirits in the home had tragically killed their beloved bunnies one by (big sigh) one.
Now, I thought this was a rather abrupt leap of faith. After all, it’s common knowledge that houses built before the 1950’s are famous for lead paint. Undoubtedly the lead paint has been covered over with fresh new paint. But what do rabbits do naturally? They chew. Happily, gleefully, these fuzzy rodents love to chew on anything, but especially wood – or wood work. Wouldn’t it first make more sense to seek out toxins in the environment, before assuming evil spirits were killing the animals? The show producers of course never even suggested this explanation. After all lead paint poisoning does not drive up ratings, evil demons do. It’s much more exciting, though less plausible, to suggest something sinister.
While television shows such as this one make for a half hour of spine tingling entertainment, they do nothing to promote rational thought. Still, when the family dog or cat suddenly starts acting bizarrely I can see why people would seek out an otherwise irrational explanation. While there is a prevailing belief that animals can sense things paranormal, I would suggest you first seek out explanations based in the, well, normal first. So below, I’ve compiled the most comprehensive list I could as to what may make an otherwise normal animal start acting abnormally.
Fido may be Feeling Funky
On the Doggit discussion board of Reddit.com I found an interesting exchange between dog lovers who were having similar problems. The first suggestion made was to take the animal in question to the veterinarian. An animal may develop a hearing or sight problem unbeknownst to their owners that would cause them to start acting skittishly. Having spent my youth among horses I can recall having dealt with horses that have lost eyesight in one eye. These animals become very skittish when approached on their blind side. It makes sense, as they can’t see anyone approaching, and then suddenly you’re there touching them. Another of the writers recounted how her dog had developed pain in its hip. It began to act afraid of her, somehow connecting its owner with the pain it was experiencing. Animals don’t reason through situations, but react to the stimulus present.
The article, “7 Signs that a Dog is in Pain” offered some telltale signs of doggy pain. Such symptoms such as limping or crying are no-brainers. But the author also mentions:
1. Excessive salivation (salivation above the norm that is) along with obviously diarrhea, constipation and vomiting as signs of gastrointestinal discomfort.
2. Whining and whimpering for no apparent reason can be a sign of pain, though knowing where the pain originates may be harder.
3. Temperament changes could be a sign that your dog is ill. An otherwise gentle dog may bite for no reason, while others may seek out more attention than is usual.
4. Strange and unusual behaviors that may indicate a neck or back injury are a refusal to go upstairs, or to lower their heads to eat. They may stop jumping up on the couch or a favorite chair.
5. Loss of Appetite especially if they’re experiencing oral pain, such as a toothache.
6. Excessive Licking especially if a localized spot may mean the area is sore or tender.
7. Panting can be a sign of pain in dogs. Dogs in pain may pant excessively; sometimes trembling at the same time. The author suggests you watch for panting at odd times, such as the middle of the night, when the animal normally would not be panting.
Strange Smell or Sounds
A veterinarian on the radio talk show recently pointed out that smell is a dog’s most developed sense. In fact the sense of smell is 1000 times better in a dog than a human, especially dogs who are trained to track (Gilbert) Think of it this way, humans see the world through their eyes, but dogs “see” the world through their nose. If a dog begins to react to one spot of the house in particular, barking, growling, backing away, it might mean they’re getting a whiff of something worrisome. It is true too that dogs can have visceral reactions to a similar stimulus.
For example, if a dog got the losing end of a tussle with a raccoon she might retain the memory. If she later encountered another raccoon – or caught the scent of said coon –she would remember the episode and recoil in fear. I always think of raccoons because they’re stubborn creatures. For years now, my parents have had a problem with raccoons making nests in the attic crawl space above their garage. Every spring my parents have the creatures forcefully removed, and every fall a new family moves in. By now I’m sure the scent of raccoon is pungent throughout the property. So I postulate that if a pest or pests find a way into a house, the scent may be sending Rover into fits of fear. Check for telltale signs of pests, such as feces in the attic, holes in an outside wall, foot prints in snow or mud that appear to stop right at the foot of the house etc. There may be sounds as well. When the raccoons have moved back in for another winter foray, we will hear them scrabbling overhead or pitter pattering in the walls.
Hearing is another sense in which dogs excel. Dogs can hear sounds that humans simply cannot detect, especially high pitched noises. Take the phantom sounds of the dog whistle for instance. I postulate that a dog may act oddly, therefore, to a high-pitched whine in a building that humans are otherwise unaware of. Electrical appliances, lighting fixtures, ceiling fans, televisions; all such appliances may create a disruptive hum when malfunctioning. Or perhaps the dog is reacting to the chattering of a critter living in the wall that we cannot otherwise hear?
We’ve certainly all met people who won’t cross a bridge or fly in an airplane. It makes no difference that far more people die in automobile accidents than aircraft crashes in a year. The fear is still there. It appears that dogs can develop irrational fears just as humans can. The T.A.P.S. team investigated a house where the dog was afraid of the kitchen. The dog appeared to avoid the area by the back door for no plausible reason, so the family assumed something paranormal was to blame. T.A.P.S. brought their own dog to the investigation, and the dog was perfectly calm in this area of the house. The team noted that the flooring in the kitchen by the back door was rather slick, and concluded that the dog’s fear was probably due to the fact that it couldn’t get a sound footing on the floor.
For years our family dog had a similar fear of storm drains. We would take him out for a family jaunt and everything was fine, until he hit that storm drain grate. Then without warning the dog would take off in the opposite direction sometimes hauling us after him. We finally figured out that the dog didn’t like that echo-ish sound the grates made when walking over them. He probably feared he’d fall in. Finally after many grates had been traversed, he got over his fear.
If an animal appears afraid of one area of the house but not others, than it may behoove you to do a little investigative reasoning. Are the floorboards creaky in this area, or the flooring slick? You might also try some training techniques. Put the dog on a leash and take him into the area calmly. Have him lie in the area for a while. Use your best calm and assertive behaviors and always reward the actions that you wish to see repeated. When the animal acts calmly give him a treat to reinforce the calm behavior you wish him to exhibit.
Storms are a common source of distress for many dogs, and they can undoubtedly sense an oncoming storm before we can. I spoke to one gentleman who said that his dog spent every thunderstorm cowering in the bathtub. In the article, “Why do Dogs Act Weird when a Rainstorm Comes” Animal Behaviorist, Nicholas Dodman admits it isn’t really understood how an animal might sense an oncoming storm; whether it be sensed changes in barometric pressure, or changes in the odor of the air, or rising static electrical fields which herald an onslaught. Dodman did say that in some dogs the polarized ion buildup that occurs before a thunderstorm can cause the fur to become statically charged. In other words, Zippy may be taking some uncomfortable zaps of electricity, and it may be these dogs that develop the worst storm phobias. By the way, dogs that take refuge in bathtubs, sinks, shower stalls or behind toilets do so for a reason. Apparently these spots are non-conductive and help dissipate the static electricity.
The terror that some animals experience due to storms is real. According to a 2005 study in “Applied Animal Behavior Science” the cortisol level, a stress hormone in dogs, spiked 207% in the tested saliva of dogs with storm phobias. And the cortisol levels stayed high for hours after the storm had passed.
Dodson continued to speculate that storm phobias in animals may be triggered by more than one element, and goes on to suggest that it may symptomatic of a “general noise phobia.” During storms the panic attack may be triggered by high winds, thunder, and rain pounding on the roof…. At times when there isn’t a storm their phobia may be triggered by noises that are similar. So check the barometric pressure and bar the door, for a storm may be brewing and Rover is way ahead of the Doppler radar reports.
Dogs and Electromagnetic Energy
Paranormal investigators are extremely fond of anything to do with electromagnetic energy. However, I found no studies on the effects of high EMF’s on household pets. However, a 2013 study that has gained notoriety on the internet examined the polar electromagnetic sensitivities of pooping pooches. The Czech study, which appeared in the Journal, Frontiers in Zoology, examined 70 dogs comprising of 37 different breeds. The dogs were allowed a free area to roam and were not leased. After watching the animals poop and pee over 6000 times the study found that when the polar electromagnetic field was calm dogs preferred to align their bodies in a north-south pole when defecating. Apparently a calm magnetic field is not all that usual. The researchers noted that during the study the field was only calm around 30% of the time. And when there were electromagnetic field disturbances all bets were off.
The researchers admitted they had no idea why the animals behaved this way, whether they perceived the fields through their senses or whether the animals simply felt more comfortable at a vegetative level when pooping to the north is unknown. The researchers also raised the question as to how a magnetic storm would affect an animal’s behavior.
What is also unknown is why a researcher would want to watch dogs poop for two years and then admit it in public! However, ashamedly, after reading the study results I did start watching my own dog who I noted predominantly faces south, and poops with his rear-end facing north. This, I speculated, is what becomes of a person who reads too many scientific studies.
So the question is raised, if a dog can sense electromagnetic fields, are they also similarly sensitive to fluctuating or high EMF fields within a domicile? Could an area in a building with an abnormally high electro-magnetic field also perversely affect a canine?
Young Female Animals &p; PMS
Young female dogs especially, going through their first heat may start acting anxiety ridden. Animals that are normally independent may start acting clingy. Others may be testy or even become aggressive. When hormones surge, especially for the first time, females of many species will act differently.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, yes dogs can exhibit such symptoms too. I blame our schedule-driven, immobile society. Dogs like humans used to have tasks to do. Hunting dogs pointed, groused and fetched. Herding dogs kept the other farm animals at bay. My own dog now lies leashed twelve hours of every day so that he doesn’t destroy the house while we’re gone earning our kibble. Intelligent animals with very little to do can develop obsessive compulsive disorders. Some of the symptoms listed include:
· Self-mutilation especially around the forepaws, tail and back legs
· Tail chasing, tail biting, whether bobbed or not
· Staring into space
· A behavior that intensifies over time and cannot be interrupted, even with physical restraints
· Circling behaviors
· Biting at imaginary flies, or chasing imaginary light
· Sucking on a toy or on a part of their bodies
As animals age their playful behaviors decline, and that is when compulsive behaviors will often begin. As the animal ages so the behavior may progress. For our own dog, it often results in tail biting and carpet licking. The author notes that while such disorders can occur in dogs they are not all that frequent. She adds that the behaviors are labeled compulsive when they become an exaggeration of normal behaviors, they are exhibited for long periods of time and are repeated at times which appear to be abnormal and happen out of context of the situation (Radosta, 2015).
Compulsive behaviors in dogs are developed during times of stress, high anxiety or frustration.
It probably comes as no surprise to animal lovers that some animals – especially dogs – can develop separation anxiety. Such behaviors can include urinating, defecating, howling, barking, chewing, digging or attempts at escape. According to WebMD such attempts at escape can be truly destructive especially at egress points such as doors and windows and may result in animal injury. So while you may think you have a poltergeist at work, it may be Rover just trying to get the heck out.
Adolescent Dog Anxiety
There is even a theory that young dogs have periods of high anxiety as they mature. This theory is as highly debated as some of the paranormal theories I’ve read, with veterinarians suggesting there are no such periods and enthusiasts swearing there are. Dogs especially are pack animals, and pack animals as they mature must vie for positions of authority in the pack. Some adolescent animals may become anxious, therefore, as they age, worrying what their position may become in the pack- much like middle-school children begin worrying about their future contribution.
Cats and Low-Light Vision
Cats are by nature nocturnal, thus their vision is adapted to low-light situations, which makes them different from both humans and dogs. While they see better in low-light situations they cannot see in total darkness. Some of the anatomical differences are obvious just by looking at the eyes of a cat. The pupil is a vertical, elliptical shape, which allows it to bring in more light into the eye. More light means better vision in low light situations. Another important feature is the tapetum lucidum a membrane within the eye that is reflective. This membrane literally bounces available light onto the retina; think tinfoil reflecting sunlight. Cat eyes are also comprised of more rods than cones. Rods are better at absorbing light than cones. Thus nature has prepared the purrfect (couldn’t resist) eye for these nocturnal hunters, allowing them to see far more detail in the dark than humans could ever hope. This might account for them seeing something in the dark, such as a spirit or a mouse, that we do not perceive.
It appears that the hearing of dogs and cats is somewhat different on the spectrum than what humans hear. According to one source humans typically hear from 64Hz-23,000Hz. Dogs’ low tones start at 67Hz but top out at 45,000Hz. Those account for those higher tones, like a dog whistle, that humans simply cannot hear. And cats can hear both lower tones and higher tones starting at 45Hz -64,000Hz. Thus we explain animal’s hearings something we cannot.
Animals and the Paranormal
I realize that this article was purportedly about animals and the paranormal. The prevailing public opinion is that animals are more attuned to the paranormal than humans. But public opinion may not always take into account that animals sense the natural world differently, which may make them appear to have preternatural abilities. For instance, dogs and cats, and birds for that matter, appear to have the ability to sense impending earthquakes. Is this ability clairvoyant or do they sense earthquakes through sound, smell or vibration? It also appears that dogs can smell certain illnesses in people, just as they can sniff out drugs or chemicals. But can they sense the paranormal, and more to the point for parapsychologists, do animals have a sixth sense? Parapsychologists have long speculated that we detect paranormal activity, not with our eyes or ears, but with our physic sight.
Obviously studying this premise is difficult at best. We can’t make paranormal activity happen on cue, let alone study it in conjunction with animal behavior. While particular animals with apparently highly developed psi skills have been studied, none were studied in conjunction with paranormal phenomenon.
Ernesto Bozzano attempted this feat in his study of 69 collected accounts involving animals, humans and paranormal activity. He published his study in the Annals of Psychic Science in 1905 and again in 1926 in the Animaux et Manifestations Metaphychiques in which animals as agents induce telepathic hallucination; in which they act as percipients simultaneously with, or previously to, human beings; in that they see human or animal phantoms, collectively with human beings in which phantom animals are seen in haunted spots or periodically appear as a premonition of death (Melton, 2001).” Of the original 69 cases he determined that in 13 cases the animals, “were subject to supernormal psychic perception in precedence [before] to humans, and in 12 they perceived things that the persons present were unable to see (Melton, 2001).” In over one-third of the cases, therefore, animals appeared to have better faculties for detection than their human counterparts by either seeing the phenomenon first or seeing it when the humans could not.
He believed that animals, “’besides sharing with man the intermittent exercise of faculties of supernormal psychic perception, show themselves further more normally endowed with special psychic faculties unknown to man (Melton, 2001).’” Among these he listed as their abilities at direction and migration and what he felt was their precognitive ability to predict earthquakes and volcanoes. A highly developed psychic sense he attributed to instinct, which all animals, except man, appear to have developed. But one study is hardly conclusive.
Greg Pocha of the Eidolan Project Canada takes a different view of animal abilities. He makes a distinction between true psychic ability in humans and animals and “gut feelings” for which he notes there is a physiological explanation. Pocha writes, “I believe that true human medium or psychic ability is found very, very rarely. Intuitiveness is more common - the so called "gut feeling". But there is a physiological reason for that instinct that dates back to our cave man ancestors. Scientists have discovered a second primitive "brain" located in the tissue around the stomach, small intestine and colon, which recently lead to the science / study of gastroenterology. This "brain" is connected to our survival instinct, and may account the feeling that one gets in places of no noticeable danger or threat. Its original function was to warn us of impeding dangers, such as a predator in the neighborhood. It may be what a "sixth" sense would be based upon. There is no reason that the ancestors of dogs and cats would not still have the remnants of such an organ as well. But this primitive brain does not explain psi abilities, only reactive, instinctive "gut feelings”. If the ratio for other animals is about the same as for humans, then only a handful of animals have a psychic ability (Pocha, 2015).”
This instinctual response to danger might then explain why horses especially appear to be able to predict avalanches. Or how dogs and cats sense earthquakes.
Pocha points out that much of what we know of animal reactions is anecdotal, but that it doesn’t make them untrue. He writes “….Recently I have heard from a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police regarding one of their dogs who got spooked at the doorway of a room and nothing could get him to enter that room. This is a trained police dog that was frightened of something "not there". Was it merely reacting to its handlers’ fears? No, the officers entered the room without issue or problem (Pocha, 2015).”
“I guess that the conclusion we can reach, based on the evidence at hand, is that SOME humans and animals may have psychic abilities whilst the vast majority do not. So what exactly are they reacting to when they seem to sense a presence or follow something about a room etc? It’s likely something perfectly natural but out of sight. And this is what I think most of the reported stories are. Some may be psychical in tone, but most I believe are merely dogs and cats being dogs and cats and their actions being misinterpreted [or sought after verification]as evidence that there is paranormal activity in a home where paranormal activity may or may not actually exist... and that is a human fallacy (Pocha, 2015).”
So can Fido tell when a ghost is near? It appears that some animals may have psychic abilities, and some may have more highly developed skills than others – just as humans do. I guess I would have to admit a grudging yes…maybe. Before I label something paranormal, however, I still believe we need to explore the other possibilities. Has the home had paranormal activity in the past for instance? Have other members of the family experienced anything unexplainable? Was the activity recent? Is it possible that Rex got into the bag of Easter candy and now is having an all-holy gastro-intestinal attack?
Anonymous (2013). “7 Signs your Dog is in Pain.” Pawsitively Pets. Retrieved January 27, 2015 from http://www.mypawsitivelypets.com/2013/01/7-signs-that-your-dog-is-in-pain.html#.VMfXaDg5DIU
Anonymous (2015) “Separation Anxiety in Dogs.” Web MD. Retrieved January 31, 2015 from http://pets.webmd.com/dogs/separation-anxiety-dogs
Anonymous. (2015) “Night Vision in Cats.” Cat Health. Retrieved January 31, 2015 from http://www.cathealth.com/vision/night-vision-in-cats
Bragg, Rebecca (2015). “Why do Dogs Act Weird when a Rainstorm comes?” On Demand Media. The Daily Puppy. Retrieved January 27, 2015 from http://dogcare.dailypuppy.com/dogs-act-weird-rainstorm-comes-7958.html
Discussion Board Doggit (2013). “My dog is suddenly skittish and scared for no reason.” Reddit.com Retrieved January 25, 2015 from http://www.reddit.com/r/dogs/comments/1hmxx6/
Gilbert, Joe (2013). “My Dog Is Acting Weird, Like She Is Scared Or Worried, What's Wrong?” Official Site Anxietrex™
Radosta, Lisa D.V. M., D.A.C.V. B. (2015) “Can Dogs have Compulsive Obsessive Disorders?’ Pet.MD. Retrieved January 30, 2015 from http://www.petmd.com/dog/behavior/evr_dog_behavior_compulsive_disorder
Scuiletti, Justin. (2014). “Dogs Poop in Alignment with Earth’s Magnetic Field, Study Finds.” PBS News Hour Retrieved January 26, 2015 from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/dogs-poop-in-alignment-with-earths-magnetic-field-study-finds/
Published article originally from the Journal, Frontiers in Zoology.