Last week a 4-year-old herding dog mix named Hank was electrocuted by stray voltage from a heated sidewalk that malfunctioned outside the Washington Trust Bank building in downtown Spokane.
The intense jolt of electricity killed him within minutes.
Although stray voltage shocks and/or kills dogs every winter, most dog owners have never heard of it.
I never knew about it until 2010 when stray voltage killed a German Shorthaired Pointer named Sammy on Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle after a November snowstorm.
What is Stray Voltage?
Stray voltage is caused by deteriorating insulation on underground cables that exposes live wires.
It occurs when electricity “leaks” from exposed, faulty wiring and electrifies metal objects in cities’ infrastructure.
The damaged wires can cause uncontrolled electrical power energizing any and all surrounding surfaces, including manhole covers, fences, storm drains, sidewalks, light poles, traffic control boxes, metal handrails and metal bus shelters.
“Sidewalks, manhole covers, roadways, fences — anything that’s in our landscape that has wires buried underground: When they fail, they leak to the surface,” explained Dave Kalokitis, chief engineer for Power Survey Company, told TODAY.
Normally, concrete alone doesn’t conduct much electricity, but heated sidewalks like the one that electrocuted Hank are made to produce a current that can warm a sidewalk.
How Stray Voltage Electrocutes Dogs
While electric shocks from stray voltage can occur year round, dogs are most susceptible to electrocution during the winter.
That’s because salt and melting snow on sidewalks are efficient conductors of stray voltage leaking from faulty wiring to light poles, manhole covers, or any other nearby metallic object.
These electrified metal surfaces can have up to 100 volts of electricity, which is equivalent to the voltage in a light socket and more than enough to kill a dog.
Stray voltage electrocutes dogs when they touch the metal surface with their bare paws. And because urine has both salt and water, a dog can also be electrocuted when it pees on a metal object electrified by stray voltage.
Hank’s owner told KREM that “he and his veterinarian believe Hank was electrocuted by a heated sidewalk, which malfunctioned. They also believe moisture and rock salt may have also carried the electricity to Hank.”
Stray Voltage Killed Seattle Dog in 2010
I knew nothing about stray voltage until 2010 when a 6-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer named Sammy was electrocuted in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood on Thanksgiving during a walk with owner Lisa McKibbin.
She said Sammy was electrocuted after stepping on a metal power plate at the base of a light pole on Queen Anne Avenue.
“I put my hand in Sam’s mouth and I felt a shock of the electric waves coming from his mouth,” said McKibbin on her blog about Sammy’s death.
After Sammy died, Seattle City Light discovered that the original installation in 2006 did not include proper grounding of four lightpoles.
Media coverage of Sammy’s death led other Seattle dog owners to come forward with similar experiences.
The Seattle PI reported that local business owner John McDowell said “he had been walking his dog Oslo in the same Queen Anne area the day before Thanksgiving, when his dog let out a ‘bloodcurdling, screaming yelp’ and fell to the ground with convulsions.”
McDowell said Oslo “had also stepped on the plate – south of the one that killed Sam – and said the current tore through the rubber sole of one of his boots.”
The PI also reported “another dog owner commented on the blog that her cocker spaniel had also been injured after stepping on metal plate in West Seattle, which caused it to yelp and writhe in pain.”
Another women told McKibbin that “our Labrador was once shocked on that same block. She yelped and moved, and my husband tried to check for stray voltage, not sure what had happened, but couldn’t tell what the problem was. Now we know for sure what happened.”
Protect Your Dog from Stray Voltage During the Snopocalypse
The danger of stray voltage shocking or electrocuting dogs is extremely high in Western Washington this week due to the massive amounts of snow that fell over the weekend and predicted to fall in the next few days.
If you walk your dog on salted sidewalks with melting snow, please take these precautions from AnimalWellnessMagazine.com:
1. Avoid touching or walking on metal objects on or near the street or sidewalk during or after rain, snow or ice, especially on salted streets. Melted snow mixed with de-icing salt is a particularly effective electrical conductor.
2. Don’t let your dog sniff or pee on or near anything metal, including trash cans or dumpsters, and especially light poles with missing covers or exposed wiring.
3. Never tie your dog to a lamp post or metal sign while getting coffee or a paper.
4. Put rubber dog boots on your pooch, but make sure they are watertight. If they’re not, they could do more harm than good. After each walk, check the boots for damage or holes.
5. Don’t use a metal leash. Keep metal on collars to a minimum.
6. Flickering street lamps should be reported to the utility company at once. Steer clear of them until they are repaired.
7. When walking, pay attention to your surroundings and your dog. Carry a charged cell phone, just in case you have to call for help, but don’t talk on the phone or listen to music while you’re walking – use this time to enjoy your dog’s company while keeping an eye on his safety.
I have a couple of things to add:
8. If your dog refuses to go forward near a metal plate or streetlight, don’t force him to keep walking! I’ve heard that dogs stopped and refused to budge when approaching a metal object electrified with stray voltage.
9. Avoid heated sidewalks.
As you walk your dog this week, please be mindful of your surroundings and keep away from any metal objects that could be electrified by stray voltage.
Here’s the story from KREM about Jack’s tragic death: