Last summer, while visiting France, I was window shopping in Nice with my rescued Bichon Frisé, Lamby. I had stopped in front of a boutique to ogle a pair of sandals when my dog suddenly screamed in pain, went rigid and fell over on the ground shaking. I knew I hadn’t stepped on him and neither had anyone else.
I checked for blood or any sign of injury and found nothing. For a full two minutes, my dog lay on the sidewalk while I frantically attempted to stabilize him. I thought he was having a seizure or heart attack.
I took him to the Clinique Vétérinaire where I learned he’d been electrocuted – he’d received a severe, high voltage electrical shock from walking on energized concrete on the sidewalk.
Incredulous, I listened to Dr. Chave explain how Lamby was lucky to have survived because, in this case, the voltage hadn’t been quite high enough to kill him. If he had been a smaller or older dog, the electrocution might have done him in. Two other dogs in Nice (both his patients) had been electrocuted to death at another location a few blocks away.
When I got home, I did some research and learned that Lamby didn’t suffer a freak accident – dogs all over the world, and people too, were getting zapped by stray voltage, a dangerous phenomenon lurking under urban sidewalks.
How does electrocution happen?
Stray voltage occurs mostly in urban areas where there is a high concentration of people and equipment. Lamp posts, manhole covers, electrical plates, storm drains and even the concrete on the sidewalk can become energized by coming in contact with buried electrical distribution systems. The likelihood of a shock depends on the voltage and the conditions. Higher voltage means higher risk and wet conditions or salt used to melt ice increase the potential for a shock.
“In urban areas, the electric system is buried underground, and over time the insulation on the wires can be damaged by construction, digging and so forth,” explains Dave Kalokitis, the Chief Technology Officer of the Power Survey Company, a service company that does work for the utility industry performing stray voltage detection internationally. “There can be corrosion from salt. Eventually these conductors come in contact with surfaces underfoot. It’s an electrocution hazard so stepping on an energized surface can cause a shock or fatal shock.”
A sidewalk doesn’t have to be wet or look damaged to be a risk. “Concrete can conduct electricity,” says Dave. “If there’s something underneath the concrete, part of the electrical system that’s damaged and the insulation has failed, it passes current to the sidewalk. When the dog or cat makes contact with that, they get a shock.”
Stray voltage made the news in January 2004, when graduate student Jodie Lane was killed by an electrified metal plate while walking her dogs in New York City. She died trying to help her dogs, who survived the shock. The city’s utility company, Con Edison, was ordered to pay a settlement of $7.2 million to the Lane family, and had to spend $100 million in citywide detection toward reducing the risk of stray voltage.
Dogs have also been electrocuted in Toronto, Boston, Chicago and other cities, but we unfortunately don’t have precise data about the incidence of these injuries and deaths. One reason is that people usually don’t know what happened so they don’t report it to the utility company. Another reason is that the utility company may not admit there’s a danger because it would mean allocating a budget, manpower and equipment to investigate. When I alerted the electrical company and City Hall in Nice, for example, officials dismissed my concerns.
What to look for
Many more dogs than people have been zapped partly because dogs are barefooted. A pair of dog boots does not provide complete protection because they can get water in them. Water conducts electricity, affecting the level of current that flows through the body, and can actually make a shock worse. “
A severe electric shock short circuits every organ and cell in the body,” explains veterinarian Dr. Emily Southward, who works in the intensive care unit of the Animal Surgical and Emergency Center in Los Angeles. “You can get organ damage. You get cardiac arrhythmias after the shock – a whole body defibrillation and smaller animals will have more damage. The animal can have seizure-like symptoms. There can be pulmonary edema – fluid in the lungs. We look for black spots, a burn. There’s always going to be an entrance and exit of where the current starts and ends. Exit marks can be anywhere on the body and are not visible on the footpad unless it was a very strong current.” Dr. Southward adds that some animals may seem all right after electrocution, only to have symptoms show up a few days later. “The stomach and the intestines are first to have damage in a dog – thus vomiting and diarrhea, sometimes bloody.”
What’s being done?
Before you start thinking you can never walk your dog on the sidewalk again, realize that efforts are underway to stop the danger of stray voltage in many urban areas. For example, testing and prevention programs implemented by Con Edison have reduced stray voltage shocks in New York City by nearly 80% since 2004.
But there’s a long way to go yet. Some city utility companies still don’t believe there’s a problem, and many animal guardians and even veterinarians have never heard of the phenomenon of stray voltage. To help raise awareness on the latter front, the Power Survey Company will be working with the Companion Animal Protection Society to reach out to veterinary hospitals around the country and explain the risks.
How to protect your companion
• Stray voltage shouldn’t be a danger when you have a responsible utility company that takes the issue seriously. Powerful and eficient detection service is available. If you suspect an area near you might be a dangerous energized surface, contact your utility company and demand action. Ask them what they’re doing to prevent stray voltage from electrocuting people and animals in your community.
• Take a cue from your dog and notice if he avoids grates or certain sections of the sidewalk. Some dogs just know, as in the case of my friend’s Yorkshire terrier. She routinely refuses to walk on electric grates. I’ve watched her jump over them, walk around them or scoot past them with a knowing look. Since Lamby’s incident, I’ve conducted an informal study and have witnessed a number of dogs avoiding metal plates or certain other spots on their walks.
• Avoid walking your dog over sidewalks or streets that have been disturbed by construction.
• Keep your dog away from salted areas.
• Visit a dog park or other green area where there are no sidewalks – being out in nature and away from trafic will help you enjoy your walks more!
• Help educate others, including your veterinarian. Direct them to the Power Survey Company website (powersurveyco. com), which offers a list of FAQs explaining stray voltage.