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Shock and electrocution: Leaking voltage is a dog-walking hazard in cities

Photo by fotogail

This is a year-round topic, but it’s particularly relevant in the wintertime, and I feared I had waited too long to write about it. No worries, it turns out — even though spring is on its way on the West Coast, the second major snowstorm in a week is about to engulf the mid-Atlantic states.

Stray voltage is a real but relatively unknown hazard for humans and dogs in urban environments. It’s a problem year-round, but it’s especially worrisome when snowy sidewalks are sprinkled with salt, since slush and salt increase the chances that even normally non-conductive surfaces will carry electric current to your dog’s feet. Unfortunately, it’s one of those problems that sounds too sensational to be believed, and I myself was a bit dubious until I read these articles from Examiner.com (“New Yorkers and dogs risk electrocution on city streets; how to be safe“) and Chicago’s CBS2 (“Victim Describes Electric Shock from City Streets“), among others. Take a look at them and at Street Zaps!, the leading resource for information about leaking street current.

The current comes from poorly-installed or maintained underground cables (and in New York alone, for example, there are over 90,000 miles of underground cables). Escaping current migrates to street level by way of the metal fixtures we’ve all seen, walked on and never thought twice about: service boxes, manhole covers, grates, lampposts, phone booths, and fire hydrants. The most dramatic incidents occur when a male dog urinates on what turns out to be an electrified lamppost or fire hydrant, but humans and dogs alike have been shocked and electrocuted when they walked on — or even near — manhole covers, metal plates, and lampposts that were carrying electrical current.

The kind of shock we’re talking about is strong enough to incapacitate or kill a good-sized dog or a human, much less a dog Chloe’s size. The effects of that kind of voltage on a body are extreme, and descriptions of these incidents are hard to read.

What’s the solution? Neither rubber-soled shoes for humans nor rubber booties for dogs will keep their wearers safe, it turns out. All you can do is be aware of the hazard and avoid walking on or near metal elements. We’ve all seen lampposts with a panel in their base missing and visible wires — that’s a sign that someone has been tampering with the light and it should be avoided. However, even a light that’s functioning properly may be carrying loose voltage. To be safe, do not tie your dog to a lamppost if her collar or leash contain any metal (and they nearly all do), and keep your male dogs from urinating on lampposts, phone booths or fire hydrants.

Nearly all of the articles you read on this topic talk about New York City, but it should be considered a problem in any large city. Street Zaps! is tracking incidents in many cities worldwide, so be alert and aware of your surroundings in any urban environment.

10 comments

  • [email protected]

    Wow! I had not heard of this before!! Our dog, Ty, would refuse to walk on the metal grates in Philadelphia. I used to think he was skittish about walking over what is basically a big hole with a grate over it, and wracked it up to one of his goof quirks – but now I’m wondering if at some point he did get a shock from one, and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again! Thanks for this post – it’s one that may save a life.

  • Rachel Sentes

    Thanks for discussing this on your blog. In Canada we lost four dogs in Toronto and Ottawa in 2009 because of electricity leaks. My dog Lucy was electrocuted while walking on the street in Edmonton Alberta in 2004. A Church forgot to shut off their power grid to a set of removed footlights. Consequently the electricity was coursing through the snow and electrified a snow bank.
    Lucy jumped in, was shocked so badly that her heart stopped for 10 seconds. It was such a hard jolt that it actually restarted her heart and she survived. She was, at the time on of only four dogs in North America to have survived that kind of jolt. Glad to say at almost 13 years old she’s still kicking around!
    Since then more people are becoming aware of stray voltage issues, but until cities change the way they set up their infrastructure we will most likely read more about this serious issue.

  • Oh my heavens, Rachel! I’m so glad (and surprised) that Lucy survived! It really is an important issue — I don’t know why we don’t read more about it.

  • Nicole F

    Just a heads up that I work @ 110 Yonge Street in Toronto and the City of Toronto is in the process of replacing these metal grates with some type of plastic composite to address the issue. Thought I’d share (piece of mind for those with little furry friends here in T.O.).

  • Max

    My 140 lb Black Lab was zapped with 120 Volts tonight during our walk. He went to sniff a light post up in North York, Ontario, Canada when suddenly he was shaken and spazzed out giving off repeated loud yelps and howls. I did not know what had happened initially – but knew it had something to do with him touching the metal cover plate with his nose that was secured on one of the sides of the concrete street light post. Called emergency services and they dispatched Toronto Hydro crew immediately. The service men that responded confirmed that the plate was LIVE with 120 Volts and the actual concrete light post also held a charge of 40 volt current. When they took down the metal cover plate from the pole they found a small part of a live wire exposed that had been touching the metal plate. They took this incident seriously and advised me that they will be conducting a check of all the light posts in the area next week to secure the light poles in the neighbourhood. I am still in disbelief that this happened to night and more so finding out via the internet that this has happened to other dog owners whose pooches were zapped similarly when they touched or peed on such posts. Will be watching my little one closely tonight. He still appears a bit off after being zapped like he was. Fortunately this was caught and no one got killed or seriously injured. Do want to thank the Hydro Crew staff that responded so quickly to the scene and fixing the problem. Perhaps if the metal cover plates were either made from Fibreglass or a less conductive material this issue could be prevented in the future. Just a suggestion. Or perhaps adding some kind of insulation to the back of the metal cover plates on the post would be more effective.

  • Holy smokes, Max, what a horrifying experience. Thank you for sharing what happened — people need to know that the risk is out there. I really hope your boy is doing okay.

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