Stray Voltage, An Invisible Winter Danger!

We had our first real snowfalls recently in New York City, reminding me to tell you a few things to be aware of while walking dogs at this time of the year. Of course, there are the obvious hazards such as cold weather and slippery sidewalks but there’s an important invisible danger to bring to your attention to keep both your dogs – and you -- safe.

I am referring to "stray voltage" or "contact voltage," which is when electric current leaks from the wires of an electrified object like a lamppost and then energizes the metal skin of that lamppost or even nearby objects made of conductive materials. Some lampposts, like the one pictured below on my block, are visibly dangerous; you can see the metal is corroded and its electrical wires are visible; as a result the base of that lamp post could be electrified, and were your dog to “connect” with it – including by urinating on it (urine is a conductor of electricity) – the resulting electric shock could be serious and even life-threatening.

The stray voltage problem is made worse when salt is used to melt snow or ice, particularly after a storm. The resulting salty water/slush is an excellent medium for electrical conduction and can conduct a ‘leaky’ lamppost’s electrical charge to nearby metal objects, turning for example an innocuous manhole cover or mailbox into a serious but hidden hazard.


I have witnessed dogs refusing to walk on particular manhole covers, likely sensing the electricity or perhaps because they were shocked on that spot in the past. Years ago, my own dog Leonardo, a handsome black pug who was totally blind, always took a wide birth around a particular manhole cover on our street. (I reported it to Con Edison as a result.) 

Some pets aren’t as lucky and don’t sense the stray voltage; they get shocked on contact.  There are known New York City dog deaths from stray electricity and even a carriage horse died from stepping on electrified metal.  Tragically, exactly twenty years ago, a New York City university student named Jodie Lane was killed trying to help her own dog who was being electrocuted on a city street.  Though she successfully pushed her dog to safety, she then made contact with the electrified metal and was killed.

Stray voltage is invisible and dangerous. It is best to keep your pets and yourself at a safe distance from sidewalk metal objects, such as signposts, mailboxes, manhole covers and fence posts. This is especially important in winter when there is water and salty slush on the sidewalks following snowstorms. 

And regardless of the season, do not let your dog urinate on a lamppost!

If you observe sparks, arcing, or even exposed wiring around lampposts, report it immediately to the utility company (1-800-75CONED) or to the city helpline (311). Also note and report any metal object that your dog seems reluctant to walk on; they will know that danger lurks there. 

Rubber boots will help protect your dogs from this potential danger by grounding their paws, and keeping them on a leash will help you keep them from coming into contact with metal objects or surfaces that may be electrified by stray voltage.

It's important to know that while stray voltage incidents are thankfully rare, they can pose serious risk of injury and even of death from electrocution, not only to animals but also to humans. In fact, back in 2004 I testified before the New York City Council on this subject because it was so important. And it is still a hidden winter sidewalk danger not only in New York but in many other cities, so everyone must remain aware.  If you have any questions about this or any aspect of your pet’s care, please contact, City Pets The House Call Vets at (212) 581-7387.

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