My cat/kitten has had an electric shock, what should I do?
Electric shock, also referred to as electrocution, is not commonly seen in cats, but occurs mostly in kittens and young cats after chewing electric cables. 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 effect 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.
Electricity from an electric shock can damage the the lungs and cause them to fill with fluid making it difficult for your cat to breathe – this life threatening condition is called pulmonary oedema. This may develop within minutes or can take up to 2 days to develop.
Severe shocks may cause internal damage to the brain, heart, lungs and gastrointestinal tract. Electricity can disrupt the normal heart beat resulting in an arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm) which may cause your cat 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 will I know if my cat has received an electric shock?
Cats 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 cat starts showing signs of pain or secondary infection of burns.
Help! My cat has just been electrocuted and is unconscious! What should I do?
The golden rule when dealing with any electrical shock is Do Not Put Yourself at Risk!
Your cat needs your help to get to a veterinary surgeon so do not do anything which may endanger your own safety. Electricity can cause muscular spasms which can cause the jaws to clamp shut around cables so that they can’t let go, so your cat may be twitching or moving around. The live current may still be present and will shock you too if you touch your cat, 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 cat 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 cat if he/she is lying in a puddle and consider your own safety first.
Once you have your cat, wrap him/her in a towel or blanket then seek veterinary attention straight away.
What signs am I looking for?
A cat that is unconscious and not breathing needs to see a veterinary surgeon IMMEDIATELY and should be taken to the nearest veterinary surgery right away. If a second person is available, CPR can be performed firmly by laying your cat on its right side and compressing the left side of the chest firmly with the heel of the hand approximately twice per second. This should be continued during the journey to the veterinary surgeon.
A cat showing any of the following signs needs urgent veterinary attention: evidence of burns, signs of pain or distress, increased drooling, irritation at the site of contact (e.g. pawing the mouth), coughing, breathing difficulties, collapse or unconsciousness.
Cats may show a delayed onset of signs as burns not obvious at the time become more apparent. Cats that have experienced a mild to moderate electric shock may show any or all of the following: pain at the site of shock (mouth pain, lameness etc.), coughing, difficulty eating, increased drooling or a foul odour to the breath. Pets showing these symptoms should be checked by a veterinary surgeon at the first possible opportunity.
Is there anything I can do at home?
It is always safer to have your cat checked by a qualified veterinary surgeon as some early signs of breathing problems can only be detected by listening to your cat’s heart and lungs. Please do not give any human medication – this may cause additional problems.
What will the vet do?
Your vet will perform a full clinical examination of your cat 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.
What tests are needed?
It is likely that your vet will want to admit your cat 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 does the treatment for my cat involve?
Treatment varies according to the severity and location of 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 cat intravenous fluids by putting your cat 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. Cats with burns will receive strong pain relief to keep them comfortable and antibiotics to prevent infection while the skin is healing.
Cats with breathing difficulties may be given oxygen and medications to help them breathe while their lungs recover.
Cats 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 cat recover?
Cats in general good health but with mild to moderate burns often go on to make a full recovery. Cats 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.
Cats 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.
Cats who present unconscious or in a coma have a guarded to poor prognosis for recovery even with intensive care in a veterinary hospital.
Can it be prevented/can I prevent it from happening again?
Prevention is key: most electric shock injuries in the home are preventable. Cats should be discouraged from playing where power tools are being used or in other high risk areas.
Cats should be discouraged from chewing cables and they should never be used as toys. If your cat likes to chew cables, he or she should be distracted with a more acceptable alternative to chew such as a treat or a cat 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.
Cats 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.