‘Stray Voltage’ Is Shocking Dogs on City Sidewalks and Streets; How to Protect Your Pet — and Yourself

Hazel. Photograph by Julia Levy.

By Lisa Kava

A frightening situation has been taking place in NYC recently; many dogs have experienced electric shocks simply from walking on city sidewalks and streets. A handful of the incidents have occurred on the Upper West Side.

“This phenomenon is known as “contact voltage” or “stray voltage,” Allan Drury, a spokesperson for ConEd, wrote to West Side Rag in an email. “It is most likely to occur following snow as the melting snow and road salt wash into the underground electric delivery system. That mix can make contact with the copper that carries the power and since salty water is a strong conductor of electricity, the voltage can reach street level.”

Stretch on West End Ave. bet 71st and 72nd where dogs were shocked.

Upper West Sider Julia Levy took her dog Hazel for a neighborhood walk on Sunday, January 30th, the day after the snowstorm. Levy was walking on the west side of West End Avenue between 71st and 72nd Street when Hazel suddenly “yelped, picked up her paw and started limping.” Levy looked at the sidewalk and looked at Hazel’s feet, but did not see anything she might have stepped on.

On Thursday, February 3rd, Sara Lewin Lebwohl was walking her dog, Prince, also on the west side of West End Avenue between 71st and 72nd Street, when Prince abruptly jumped and started yelping in pain. “He yelped as if he was standing on hot lava. A man working nearby yelled to us to get off the street quickly, saying it was electric. My husband looked all around the ground and did not see any visible salt, glass or anything that could have caused Prince’s pain. He was not standing on or near metal.” Later that day Lebwohl read numerous posts on the social networking site Nextdoor, from neighbors whose dogs had similar experiences on that block.

On Thursday, February 3rd, Daniella Berman and her husband, Tony, walked their dog Bella on the same block. “Just before approaching 255 West End Ave, Bella jumped, recoiled, and ran awkwardly with her tail between her legs, looking over her shoulder, almost like something had bitten her, Berman said. “We looked around and the sidewalk was totally clear, no salt and no metal grates or anything like that.”

After learning from several of her neighbors that their dogs had experienced the same thing, Julia Levy and her family decided to do an experiment. Using a multimeter, they tested different parts of the sidewalk on West End Avenue for electricity. “We found patches showing electricity passing through the concrete.” Levy tweeted about it here:

In a follow up phone call, Drury told WSR that ConEd crews had been sent to the West End Avenue location after reports were filed. According to a representative from Council Member Gale Brewer’s office, ConEd said, “The source was a defective service cable feeding one of the buildings. Repairs were made to prevent any additional contact voltage.”

The alarming incidents are not limited to the Upper West Side. A dog was recently electrocuted and died in Brooklyn after stepping on an electrified metal plate. And Upper West Sider Benjamin Maltz, who had been reading the posts on Nextdoor, told West Side Rag that he had been seeing and hearing dogs being shocked all week from his office window in Tribeca (he and his boss ultimately called ConEd after initially asking building management to clean the sidewalk.)

On Monday morning, February 7th, another Upper West Sider informed the Rag that her dog experienced the same problem on 84th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue. “My dog was near a metal grate, but I don’t believe he touched the grate. He suddenly yelped and screamed and scrambled away. He was traumatized.” The resident called ConEd, and said they arrived on the scene quickly.

While stray voltage most commonly affects dogs who walk over metal plates, it can also occur on a clear sidewalk, as it did in these instances, Drury told West Side Rag. “People are generally protected from stray voltage since they are wearing footwear,” he explained.

“This is such a tragic issue as our dogs are at risk walking the streets from an invisible source,” Dr. Amy Attas of City Pets, The House Call Vets wrote to West Side Rag in an email. “I counsel people not to allow their dogs near metal objects especially when the streets are wet with slush and snow. People should not allow their dogs to urinate on mailboxes, lamp posts or anything else metal. They should keep them clear of manhole covers.”

Dr. Andrew Kaplan from City Vet on West 72nd Street also recommends that dog owners avoid contact with metal on streets. “Do not allow male dogs to urinate on anything metal,” he reiterated. “If your dog is currently being shocked, pull them back by the leash rather than with your hands and alert ConEd of the location.”

Humans pass the same way.

Dr Attas was an Executive with the New York City Veterinary Medical Association in 2004 when a young woman named Jodie Lane was killed in the East Village by stray voltage. Lane stepped on a grate while trying to help her dogs who were being shocked. Dr Attas spoke before the New York City Council at the time, calling for reform. “It is sad that we are dealing with this almost 20 years later,” she now said.

Drury said that same year that Lane was killed, ConEd implemented a program to deal with the problem. “We scan our system regularly for contact voltage and when we find it, we immediately make it safe, even if the voltage is not coming from Con Edison equipment. Instances of contact voltage from Con Edison equipment have declined by 90 percent since we began this program in 2004.”

Both Dr. Attas, and Dr. Seth Bishop of Brilliant Veterinary Care on West 91st Street recommend rubber boots for dogs when there is salt on the ground. “Rubber boots help as they provide some grounding to help a dog who is getting shocked from a hot grate,” Dr Attas said. “Rubber shoes can provide a protective barrier for our pets as it limits electrical conduction,” Dr. Bishop said.

Dr. Bishop confirmed that, while less frequent, dogs can be shocked without actually stepping on metal. “The combination of wet sloshy streets and excessive amounts of salt in a city with many power supplies can result in unwanted conduction. “Try to avoid puddles on the sidewalk edges and use caution if anything metal-appearing is in the vicinity. As for dry surfaces, electrical shock on concrete is rare but, unfortunately, there are no specific warning signs for this.”

It is important to bring your dog to a vet if you suspect he or she has been shocked. “The most common symptom is a loud yelp often followed by the dog acting shy or scared. Other symptoms include tensing of the muscles, spasms, burns to the skin, or, in worse case, collapse,” Dr. Bishop said.

If your dog has experienced shock from stray voltage, please immediately report it to ConEd at 1-800-75CONED, and to Council Member Gale Brewer’s office at 212-873-0282.

More information about keeping dogs safe from stray voltage can be found here.

“The city needs to do better to protect our dogs,” Lebwohl, Prince’s owner, said. “If the streets are electrified, that is a serious hazard for everyone.”

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 17 comments | permalink
    1. Concerned Citzen says:

      So disturbing. Can’t imagine it hasn’t had anything to do with the EXCESSIVE salting of the roads and streets and no good old fashioned shoveling? Recently when temps have been so low and no reported rain/snow, the streets have been dust clouds of salt. The day after the big snow, I saw the city using insane amounts of salt around the MTA entrances, with no shovels in sight. And predictably, by afternoon, it was a flooded MESS. I guess that means that area could have been electrified too. Perhaps the city should consider not dumping massive amounts of salt in piles when it is wholly unnecessary and use safer alternatives like sand. Or cater more to pedestrians and less to VEHICLES. Just a thought!

    2. Zed says:

      Road salt should be banned. Hurts dogs, corrodes roadways, destroys cars, damages electrical infrastructure, pollutes our waterways. But it saves doormen from having to shovel snow, I guess.

      • ST says:

        The salt clouds in the air once the weather is dry is frightening. We’re inhaling it. The DOT and landlords wildly oversalt.

    3. Lizzie says:

      I’m sympathetic to the startled dogs. But the vet who calls this “tragic” is really overblowing it. No dogs were injured or killed! They’ll get over it.

      But I’d like to see buildings and the DOS use less salt. Hurling it in big lumpy piles doesn’t do much to prevent ice. It’s actually less effective and wastes product. Even the manufacturers recommended spreading it more thinly — and they have an interest in seeing more product used, not less.

    4. Tess says:

      Nice work on covering this. I had heard about this for a while and you investigating it is really helpful to me.
      Thank you

    5. Pamela Corwin says:

      I just spoke with my building management about using sand or the product that is not salt based and animal friendly instead of salt. Everyone should do this and we can minimize salt which is also an environmental pollutant because it goes into the sewers and then into our rivers.

    6. chrigid says:

      I thought there had been an alternative developed for salt on the roads

    7. Max says:

      This is so unnecessary.
      When I lived in Battery Park they used the blue “ice” that is not harmful to pets. I thought it was a gimmick but we never ever had an issue. Once we moved and had to deal with the MASSIVE amounts of salt it became clear it’s not a gimmick. The entire city should use it.
      And as others have said- shovel!! People have gotten too lazy.

    8. Carol says:

      I know it’s not a solution for this, but we always used Musher’s wax on paw pads, most all year long (helps in warm weather, also) and then also used boots when any salt or ice was present. Every little bit, I guess.
      My girl was small, and she’d happily lie on her back while I put her boots on, lol.

      • Ish Kabibble says:

        How is Mushers going to stop electric current from zapping a dog?

        • W Veery says:

          That’s why Carol said “I know it’s not a solution” and I appreciate knowing about this product and wish it was available when I had my dog. My dog was a NYC stray, very small and had thin footpads. The road salt caused her much pain (cracked bleeding footpads) and she would sit down and look at me plaintively until I’d pick her up to carry her. Back then the only available solution were tiny deerskin boots on x-shaped suspenders and it’s incredible this was manufacturedin in such a small size. After bucking like a bronco she’d eventually settle down and walk in them. I would have preferred something like this wax. Thanks for the suggestion Carol.

    9. Pedestrian says:

      Incompetence and disinterest. The electric company doesn’t care. It only responds after the fact but it knows what’s happening so it should be checking and repairing BEFORE it happens. They know so it’s not an accident.

      The City needs to be proactive in forcing the electric company to inspect and repair its installations now.

    10. Marty says:

      The comments seem to focus on the salt and not the basic issue- each year, ConEd finds over 5,000 stray voltages. In 20 years of testing, that is over 100,000 stray voltages. This data is on the Public Service Commission website. (Case 04-M-0159) The PSC is not providing enough oversite on this problem. Why aren’t these issues being fixed?