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Do animals have a sixth sense?

There are many mysterious myths and eerie legends of animals possessing supernatural powers, which make for great stories during spooky season. But what about your own pets? Have you ever wondered if they have some sort of ‘sixth sense’? Or are there more down-to-earth explanations?

Along with fancy dress and trick or treating, Halloween season traditionally marks the end of summer and the beginning of harvest when, according to ancient Celtic legend, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead can become blurred – yikes!

It’s also the perfect time of year for snuggling on the sofa with your best pet friends, watching a scary movie, or sharing strange stories of the supernatural, including tales of ghostly black dogs and witches and their cats...

But have you ever had the feeling that your beloved pets have some sort of sixth sense? For example, does it sometimes seem as if they can read your mind? Or can tell if you’re feeling sad? Does your cat seem to stare at things you can’t see? Perhaps you feel that your dog is a great judge of character as there are certain people they just don’t take to with no explanation?

Could our pets really have supernatural abilities, or are there more down-to-earth explanations? According to science, not only do animals sense and interpret the world in a different way to us humans, but some of their senses also operate on a completely different level to ours, which could explain their seemingly ‘other worldly’ behaviour.

Writing on Science News Explores, journalist Emily Sohn says: “Some people say that animals have a special kind of power for sensing the future. They call it a ‘sixth sense,’ above and beyond the five senses we normally talk about – taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. But there’s more to the world than meets the eye, nose, skin, ears, and tongue. Scientists have discovered a variety of unexpected ways that animals and even people sense the world around them.” However, she adds that while most scientists are sure there must be rational explanations, they are “are far from knowing everything about why animals behave the way they do.”


Is my dog hearing things?

The answer is yes – and a lot more than you can! Sohn points to the fact that human ears are tuned to a certain range of sounds – those with frequencies between 20 and 20,000 hertz. In comparison, dogs can hear sounds up to 45,000 hertz.

She says: “The ability to hear things that we can’t hear can help explain what looks like strange animal behaviour. If your dog suddenly starts whining, for example, it might be simply that she’s heard something your ears can’t detect.”


TALL TALES OF BEASTLY BLACK DOGS

According to folklore expert David Castleton: “A terrifying creature haunts the British psyche, an apparition our ancestors have long feared to meet late at night on quiet lanes, in city alleys or on gloomy isolated moors. This creature, or spectre, is an abnormally large black dog with burning red eyes. In different parts of the country, the black dog has different names: Barghest, Gytrash and Padfoot in Yorkshire; Moddey Dhoo on the Isle of Man; Old Shuck in East Anglia; Yeth or Whist Hound in Devon; and Gwyllgi – or ‘dog of darkness’ – in Wales. The beast has worked its way into Britain’s literature, with Emily and Branwell Brontë, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle and JK Rowling among those inspired by black dog legends.”


My dog always knows how I’m feeling

This is just one of the very special skills of our canine companions – and science has an explanation. Companion animal vet Lynn Buzhardt, DVM states: “Think of a sixth sense as intuition or a ‘gut feeling’. The five recognised senses each give us a fragment of information about our environment or circumstances. A sixth sense draws from the cumulative information gathered by the other five senses to increase the level of awareness. Many pet owners note that dogs are quite intuitive. When we are happy, our dogs may be equally exuberant. Ever come home excited after winning a tennis match or getting a job promotion and watch your dog jump around excitedly? When we are sad, our dogs try to comfort us.”

As well as assessing our behaviour and body language, dogs put their other detection skills to good use. Dr Buzhardt says: “Humans produce a group of ‘feel good’ hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. The levels of these hormones increase and decrease along with the elevation or depression of our moods. When we are sick, our dogs may detect a fall in hormone levels and respond accordingly. As they comfort us, hormone levels may rise, and we feel better. How rewarding for our dogs when they detect this rise and realise that their presence helped us feel better! Our furry friends seem to know what we need.”


Dog people know that their pets are tuned into their emotions – and now science has proved it. When you’re happy and you know it, your dog does too. Likewise, when you’re feeling down, your dog will quietly sit by your side to show their support >>


My dog can tell that bad weather is on the way

Because dogs have such an acute sense of hearing, they hear distant thunder way before a human ear catches a rumble. Dr Buzhardt says: “They also smell changes in the atmosphere (ozone) better than we do, so they may sense an oncoming storm. Ever watch your dog anxiously pace through the house before a storm hits? Dogs have also been known to detect changes in seismic activity and feel minute movement before earthquakes occur. In addition to hearing, smelling, and feeling weather activity, dogs can detect changes in barometric pressure or electromagnetic fields. Who needs a weather forecaster when you have a dog?”


STRANGE STORIES OF SPOOKY CATS

Icy Sedgwick, a folklore blogger and author says: “Cats in folklore occupy many roles. Whether they’re stealing souls for the Devil, witches in disguise, or good luck charms on board ship, they appear in a whole range of stories. Possibly the queen of cats in folklore, the Cat Sìth, a large black cat with a white patch on its chest, wanders around Ireland and Scotland looking for souls. People played loud music at wakes to distract her.”


My dog always knows when I’m coming home

Canines quickly learn the routines of the people who live with them – when we are going to wake up, leave for work, and return home. Dr Buzhardt says: “Dogs sort of have an internal clock. Ever have your dog meet you at the front door when you arrive home from work? Maybe he just knows your schedule.”

However, there could be a bit more to it than that. What about if you get home out of the blue? Dr Buzhardt adds: “Ever have your dog waiting at the door when you come home unexpectedly? You’re not alone! In one study, hidden cameras were placed in homes where researchers had owners come home at random times. Despite the change in schedule, the dogs somehow knew when to go to the door to greet them.”

Now that’s a really hard one to get a handle on. Sometimes, it seems that our dogs JUST KNOW.


My dog is a great judge of character

While that is quite possibly true, there’s more to it than your dog just having a hunch that someone isn’t quite what they seem. People with something to hide have a tendency to look away during conversations. This isn’t missed by dogs, who will react to this behaviour by becoming apprehensive.

Vet Sarah Wooten, DVM, says” Dogs, who have been evolving alongside humans for thousands of years, have clearly demonstrated an ability to recognise and respond to human emotions, and scientists now know that they use ordinary and extraordinary dog senses to do this. A 2009 study found that dogs gaze much longer at happy versus sad human faces, indicating that they may be sensitive to human emotions.”

Dr Wooton also points to another study, published in 2016, which found that dogs process human emotions from gazing not just at the eye region, but also the midface and mouth regions. Dr Wooten notes: “Dogs are a highly social species, and they are evolved to evaluate social threats rapidly, including threats the come from humans. This study found that when dogs viewed images of other threatening dogs, they reacted with increased attention to the image. However, when they viewed images of threatening humans, they responded by avoiding the image.”


LEGENDS OF THE WHITE HARE

In Wales, Cornwall and Dorset, there are legends of a haunting white hare. Zteve T Evans of Folkrealm Studies says: “It used to be said by the cunning folk (practitioners of folk magic) that when a pure maiden who had loved a man with all her heart and soul is forsaken or is betrayed by him, then her spirit returns in the form of a white hare to haunt that man bringing him misery and death. The ghostly hare follows the deceiver wherever he goes. The white hare is said to be visible to the deceiver and usually invisible to almost everyone else.”


There’s part of my home that my pet always avoids

If you have a pet, you might notice that there are certain areas or spots they are inexplicably afraid of, or there's one place they always act strange in. Could it be haunted? Probably not. Professional dog trainer Nicole Ellis of pet sitting service Rover.com has an explanation: “There could be many reasons a dog avoid a spot, perhaps he was in that area and heard something frightening (a loud car backfiring, fireworks, etc) and now associates it to that spot.”

In fact, Ellis suggests that dogs’ ‘special powers’ are simply due to their ability to smell and see better than us: “Dogs don’t have a sixth sense as much as they simply have heightened versions of all of the other five senses. Dogs can pick up on minor changes in the environment, small sounds from down the street, etc and learn to associate those with certain actions, which could lead to the belief that they can sense things before they happen or at least before humans do.”


Will a lucky black cat bring you happiness? According to people who’ve adopted a charcoal charmer, the answer is a resounding yes >>


My cat seems to see things I can’t

Do cats possess spooky vision? In fact, there’s a whole spectrum of light that lies beyond what we humans normally see. Our eyes can detect light of only certain wavelengths (from violet to red), whereas some animals can detect ultraviolet light or infrared light. Bees, for example, see in ultraviolet to identify plant patterns and seek out nectar. And, according to a study undertaken at City University London, cats, dogs and other mammals can see in ultraviolet, too.

"Nobody ever thought these animals could see in ultraviolet, but in fact, they do," said study leader Ron Douglas. This ability allows them to see things beyond what is visible to a human eye, which can seem rather spine-chilling.

Emily Sohn explains it like this: “Suppose you could see only blue, green, and yellow. You would probably find it absolutely amazing that all cars stopped at red lights because you wouldn’t know that the lights were red. Instead, you might think that the cars were alien machines that had ESP and magically knew when to stop.”

So, if your cat is staring at something you can’t see, they’re using their special cat vision – although what it is they’re looking at is still a mystery...


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