Walking outside with your dog during the winter months has special kind of charm—seeing your breathe in the crisp air, the crunch of snow under your feet, and the anticipation of hot chocolate when you get home. But your idyllic moment can come to a halt when your canine companion suddenly yelps, jumps, or behaves erratically.
Maybe a painful ice ball has formed between his toes, or he was startled by the loud scrape of a snowplow’s blade. But there’s another possibility, one that can come with serious consequences: outdoor electrical shocks and electrocution.
These shocks are due to “contact voltage,” which is an electrical fault that sends stray voltage around metal objects such as streetlight poles, manhole covers, sewage grates, traffic signals, and junction boxes. If a dog comes in contact with one of the objects—urinating against a sign, for example, he could be injured by a shock. The electricity is also transferred to sidewalks, where shock is even more likely to occur.
What causes contact voltage surges? Melting snow. But not just from the snow moisture itself. Mark Voigtsberger, president of UTGIS, a company that does utility and municipal inspections, tells the AKC that melting snow alone is not the culprit.
“Pure water by itself does not conduct electricity," Voigtsberger explained. "However, if there’s even a little road salt or antifreeze in the water, the chemical reaction makes the snow or slush ‘energized.’”
Electrical current flowing on a metal object causes it to heat up slightly, melting the snow around the base. Not surprisingly, the risk to our dogs is highest in December through February.
The area around this light pole, with its telltale sign of melted snow, was found to have 12 volts of electricity.
Research shows that humans are more at risk for shock and electrocution June through August. People are typically wearing shoes with rubberized soles during snowy months, which provide a greater level of protection. Even so, in January 2004, Jodie Lane, a 30-year-old Columbia University doctoral student, was fatally electrocuted by stray voltage while walking her two dogs, Reilly and Meeko, after one of them stepped on the metal cover of a utility box in Manhattan's East Village. The current surged through the dog and into Lane. In that highly unusual case, both dogs survived. After the accident, the New York Daily News ran a story warning dog owners of electrocution risk to both people and dogs.
Contact voltages can range from 1 volt to more than 120 volts. Therefore, stray voltage can result in just a mild shock, to an injury such as a burn or loss of toenails, to a lethal electrocution. So what’s a winter-loving dog owner to do?
5 Ways to Keep Your Pet Safe from Stray Voltage Shocks
- Look for melted snow around the base of light poles and signs. This is not necessarily an indication of contact voltage, but it should raise a red flag. Even if you don’t see melted snow in those areas, steer clear of metal surfaces, such as manhole covers, light poles, and sewer grates.
- If you suspect that your dog is receiving a shock, do not touch him or the ground. Try to maneuver him from the spot calmly but quickly, using a nylon or other fabric leash, which do not conduct electricity. Don’t use a metal leash when walking in publicly accessible areas. As they do for people, rubber-soled booties may offer added protection. If nothing else, they'll keep your dog's paw pads safe from harsh de-icing chemicals and ice balls.
- Be aware of patterns. Network with other dog owners in your neighborhood or along your usual walking route, to see if they’ve observed any odd behavior from their dogs in certain areas.
- Report all suspected contact voltages to 911 or your public utility agency. Often shock incidents go unreported because dog owners don't recognize what is happening. But if adverse reactions or erratic behavior is going on at the same general location it warrants further official investigation. The area will be tested with a voltmeter.
- Use positive training techniques to encourage your dog to stay away from electrical infrastructure in the first place. For example, keep treats in your pocket and apply the training methods you’ve used before to modify behavior.
The idea that your dog may get shocked or electrocuted is upsetting. But the overall risk of is low, and being armed with knowledge and awareness will greatly reduce it.