Electric shocks in dogs
Electric shock, also referred to as electrocution, is most commonly seen in puppies and young dogs after chewing electric cables, but can be seen in dogs of all ages, sizes and breeds. Other possible sources of danger include faulty wiring, fallen transmission cables, broken electrical circuits and, rarely, lightning strikes during thunderstorms when outside.
What is the affect of an electric shock?
A lot depends on the strength of the current, the voltage of the electricity and the duration of contact.
Very mild shocks may cause nothing more than mild discomfort similar to us experiencing a static build-up. However, even relative weak electrical currents can cause extensive burns as the current spreads through the tissues and causes them to overheat. Often the extent of the damage is not fully apparent until several days afterwards as the damaged tissue dies and forms ulcers. These can get infected very easily, and if in the mouth may be noticed as mouth pain or a foul smell.
Severe shocks may cause internal damage to the brain, heart, lungs and gastrointestinal tract. Strong voltages can cause twitching, muscular spasms and convulsions which may resemble a seizure. These motions can be strong enough to cause damage to the tendon and ligaments, and can even fracture bones.
Electricity from an electric shock can damage the lungs and cause them to fill with fluid, making it difficult for your dog to breathe – this life threatening condition is called pulmonary oedema. This may develop within minutes or can take up to 2 days to develop.
Electricity can disrupt the normal heart beat resulting in an arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm) which may cause your dog to collapse, or may even cause cardiac arrest (when the heart stops beating). In the worst case, brain damage, unconsciousness or even instant death can occur. Lightning strikes are usually immediately fatal.
How do I know if my dog has received an electric shock?
Dogs may be found chewing something electrical or may jump as if they’ve just received a static shock. It is not uncommon to find pets unconscious close to a source of electricity, often still in contact with the source of electricity. Animals who have received a lightning strike are found dead, often with charring or other burn marks present.
Alternatively, mild cases may not be discovered until a day or two later when your dog starts showing signs of pain or secondary infection of burns
What should I do if my dog has been electrocuted?
The golden rule when dealing with any electrical shock is to avoid putting yourself at risk.
Electricity can cause muscular spasms which can cause the jaws to clamp shut around cables so that they can’t let go. The live current may still be present and will shock you too if you touch your dog, so the first step is to turn off the power if possible. This may involve switching off the socket at the wall or turning off the mains supply to the entire area.
If this is not possible, consider contacting the emergency services for specialist help. It may be possible to break the contact between your dog and the live current using a wooden or plastic pole but NOT metal (E.g. a broom handle) to push them away from the electric source, or the source away from them. Be extremely careful if the area is wet as this will also conduct electricity; do not approach your dog if he/she is lying in a puddle and consider your own safety first.
Once it is safe to approach your dog, wrap him / her in a blanket and proceed to your nearest veterinary surgery. Blankets can be used as stretchers for large dogs. This is quickest way for your dog to receive treatment – a visit to your house by your vet is not appropriate in this situation as it will unnecessarily delay lifesaving treatment which can only be administered using equipment at the veterinary clinic.
What will the vet do?
Your vet will perform a full clinical examination of your dog which will include listening to the heart and lungs, and closely examining the site of the shock for evidence of trauma to the soft tissues. The vet will be looking for signs of life threatening injuries, burns and pain. There is no single test which proves your pet has been electrocuted; the diagnosis is reached using the combination of findings during the examination combined with a history of possible exposure.
It is likely that your vet will want to admit your dog as an inpatient for monitoring and further tests to rule out life threatening damage. These may include an ECG to check the rhythm of the heart; x-rays or ultrasound scans repeated over several days to monitor damage to the lungs and blood tests to monitor oxygen levels in the blood.
Specialist referral centres may also be able to offer CT-scans or MRI-scans to better visualise damage to the skin, lungs and brain; this is usually reserved for severe cases after initial stabilisation.
What will treatment involve?
Treatment varies according to the severity and location of the injury. Many patients require a prolonged stay in a veterinary hospital due to the need for strong pain relief or breathing support.
Your vet may wish to give your dog intravenous fluids by putting your dog on a drip; this maintains blood pressure while the body is in a state of shock. Large burns can cause loss of large amounts of fluid and protein, so a drip can help to restore protein and/or fluid losses. If a very large area of skin has been affected, your vet may suggest skin grafts or other surgical techniques to speed up healing. Dogs with burns will receive strong pain relief to keep them comfortable and antibiotics to prevent infection while the skin is healing.
Dogs with breathing difficulties may be given oxygen and medications to help them breathe while their lungs recover.
Dogs with abnormal heart rhythms caused by the electricity will receive medications to restore the heart to its normal rhythm. Severe cases may require defibrillation (a small shock administered using a special machine to encourage the heart back to a normal rhythm).
Unconscious pets in a coma will require intensive care from the veterinary staff with supportive treatment to include medication and oxygen. They may require artificial ventilation. Unfortunately, not all pets will regain consciousness or there may be severe brain damage.
Will my dog recover?
Dogs in generally good health but with mild to moderate burns often go on to make a full recovery. Dogs with severe burns can make a full recovery but this can take a long time over many weeks and months and will require significant veterinary involvement during that time.
Dogs with breathing difficulties or heart rhythm abnormalities may deteriorate suddenly during the first few days and have a guarded prognosis. They require a high level of care in a veterinary hospital if they are to make a full recovery.
Dogs who present unconscious or in a coma have a guarded to poor prognosis for recovery even with intensive care in a veterinary hospital.
How can I prevent it from happening?
Prevention is key. Most electric shock injuries in the home are preventable. Dogs should be discouraged from playing where power tools are being used or in other high-risk areas.
Dogs should be discouraged from chewing cables and they should never be used as toys. If your dog likes to chew cables, he or she should be distracted with a more acceptable alternative to chew such as a treat or a dog toy. Bitter tasting sprays from the pet shop or your vet can be useful to discourage chewing. Persistent chewers should not be left unsupervised in rooms with electrical cables.
Cable guards can be used to protect vulnerable cables which can’t be hidden in cupboards, under carpets or otherwise out of reach. Consider unplugging or switching off the power to any machine not actively in use. Inspect cables for damage and replace any cable where the protective plastic covering has been compromised.
Dogs should be kept away from any electrical area marked as dangerous (e.g. power stations or generators). Avoid walking in thunderstorms and if caught outside during a storm, find a building for shelter. Do not shelter under trees as they conduct electricity to the ground and may affect animals/people in the immediate vicinity.