Visiting Veterinarian

Electric emergency

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - August 30, 2007

Perusing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, I heard someone pounding on the front door. Now my husband and I have an agreement. Unless I am officially on call for the Island Veterinary Emergency Service, he answers the door when the office is closed. Living at my practice has many advantages. Privacy is not one of them. People think nothing of ringing the bell after hours or on weekends, asking to buy flea products, or to pick up medications. People even leave things in the door...yucky things. There's nothing like returning from a pleasant day at Lambert's Cove to find a bag of feces on my doorstep. Sorry, folks. I'm not running a parasite check on my day off. We're closed.

This particular Sunday, however, the visitor was an old friend and neighbor holding Pip, a tiny, gasping puppy. Pip had bitten the vacuum cleaner cord and almost electrocuted herself. I say "almost" because, by definition, electrocution is fatal. Pip was still breathing, but obviously in trouble. Not the first pet to make this mistake, inquisitive puppies, playful cats, and curious rabbits are notorious for chomping electrical cords. The lucky ones get a tingly shock. The unlucky ones suffer injuries ranging from severe oral burns, to life-threatening pulmonary edema, to sudden death. This is why your mother told you not to stick a fork in the wall socket.

Electricity, explained

Before we go any further, let's define our terms. Understanding electricity... well, in spite of the fact that my father was an electrical engineer, it took me three tries to pass college physics. Start talking about ohms, resistance, and conductors, and my eyes glaze over. But we need to grasp the basics, so here goes. Electricity is created by negatively charged electrons flowing through a conductor. Voltage is the difference in electrical potential between two points on a circuit. It is the force that causes electricity to flow and is measured in volts. Current is the actual flow from the source through the conductor and is measured in amperes. Resistance is anything impeding that flow and is measured in ohms. Okay, I'm lost, but hopefully you still understand what I'm talking about.

When an electric current passes through an animal's body, the effects vary depending on the circumstances. What is the voltage? How much resistance? The bigger the dog, the greater the resistance. Pip was tiny. In people, contact with a 1 milliampere (mA) current is barely perceptible (1,000 milliampere = 1 Amp). A current of 16 mA is called the "let go" threshold. If the current exceeds 16 mA, it stimulates involuntary muscle contractions, creating the classic lethal situation in which the victim is physically unable to release their grasp. When Pip was first found, her jaws were clenched shut, unable to let go of the cord. Pip's mom was smart enough to unplug the vacuum before touching her. Never grab an animal who is being electrocuted. If you can safely disconnect the power source, do so. If not, try to knock the animal away from the current using something like a wooden broom. Never use anything metal, or anything wet. When the current reaches 20 mA, the muscles that control respiration become paralyzed. In other words, the victim stops breathing. At 100mA, cardiac arrhythmias occur. At 2 Amps, the heart stops and the internal organs get fried.

House call

When my husband told me who was knocking, and why, I rushed to the door, eschewing our usual routine of handing the intruder the telephone number of the veterinarian officially on call. There was no time to waste. "Bring her right in," I said, and began my exam. Pip had stopped breathing while biting the cord but luckily had begun again spontaneously when the plug was pulled. Unfortunately the problem didn't end there. Pip was distressed and breathing hard. She was at risk for developing a secondary, life-threatening condition called neurogenic pulmonary edema, where the lungs fill with fluid. This can occur up to 24 hours after the shock. Not every victim develops this condition, but those that do can be in big trouble. Was this pulmonary edema? Or was Pip just freaked out, and in pain? Even small voltages can cause significant oral burns. Pip had burns in the corners of her mouth and on her tongue. These injuries may look superficial, but sometimes there is much deeper damage than initially visible due to clotting of internal blood vessels and nerve damage. In some animals, especially cats, the burns may be so severe that they are unable to eat and need to be maintained with feeding tubes until they heal. Pip's burns looked painful, but was that the only worry? I gave medication for shock, pain, and pulmonary edema. I took radiographs. Her films looked worrisome. Although she relaxed a bit as her medications kicked in, she was still breathing harder than I liked.

"She might be fine," I told my friend, "or she might get a whole lot worse. I just don't know." We discussed options. Her condition could deteriorate rapidly, and it might be fatal. She would be safest at a 24-hour care facility with a humidity-controlled oxygen cage, on-site blood gas analyzer, emergency medicine specialist, and ICU technician on hand throughout the night. "I'd take her off now, if I were you," I advised. Pip's family agreed and headed for the boat. Good thing. By the time she reached the specialist, Pip was looking worse. Much worse.

If you have animals that are prone to chewing, pet proof all potentially dangerous cords. I know that sounds like a tall order. At my house, an awful tangle of wires clutter the area around my desk. Things like printer cables only carry data and shouldn't be a problem. Phone cords carry only minimal electricity (although if Pip happens to pounce right when the telephone rings, she could still get quite a jolt.) Everything else should be pet-proofed. There are many commercially available products or make your own with PVC piping. Use socket covers too. Another caution as we go through hurricane season. Water is an excellent conductor. In 1985 when hurricane Gloria was headed our way, a number of us gathered at the MSPCA in case we were needed to provide emergency services. We waited all day for landfall. Luckily the storm barely sideswiped us. There were no casualties... until afterwards, when a couple of people went walking with their dogs to see the pounding surf. They didn't notice the power lines that were down and in contact with the water on the ground. When the barefoot dogs stepped into the puddles, they were electrocuted.

Such lethal events are uncommon, but I was worried about Pip, and relieved she would be at an emergency clinic providing aggressive round-the-clock care. I called the next day to check on her. "I think she's going to be okay," the weary specialist reported cautiously. "She turned the corner around two in the morning." Pip came home soon after. The tip of her tongue may always look a little funny, but otherwise she's fine. Her family is pet proofing the electrical cords and I'm finishing the crossword puzzle. Anyone know a nine-letter word for fortuitous?