The single WORST holiday hazard? Deadly electric cords!

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: February 11, 2021
Published: December 17, 2010
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I feel well-justified in reprising the overworked subject of holiday hazards, given the plight of yesterday's patient: one near-dead kitten whose attack on Christmas tree lighting occasioned his need for critical care. It was bad. So bad we're still calling it a 50-50 case. As in, an equal chance of recovery … or not.

None of which should surprise anyone. After all, when a creature weighing less than four pounds gets whacked with a wallop of alternating current that might well kill you too … it's a very bad thing.

Many pets die immediately. Owners will either see the accident happen (see below for how to handle this possibility), or will find them lying right next to the offending cord, leaving little doubt as to the cause of death; less still after finding the classic electric burns to the mouth and the telltale teeth marks on the cords' plastic-coating.

Some pets will live to see another day, but often not more than one or two. Here's why, according to Veterinary Partner:

Electrocution can cause severe tissue damage (like a thermal or heat burn can) and can also lead to serious internal complications like pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs).

Yeah, that, and as in the case of this five-monther, signs similar to what we might see in severe heat stroke cases: lots of bleeding from the now friable fine vessels.

Severe blood clotting problems can also accompany electrocution — as they are in my patient, who's been bleeding from his gums, under his skin, in his intestines, into his lungs and maybe even into his brain (he's had a couple of seizure-ish events).

Altogether lots of really bad stuff. All from biting one cord. Oh, and did I mention that he burned off all of his lower incisors? What were left of his teeth was found at the scene of the crime.

Then there's the pain. Imagine getting such a jolt of electricity that all your nerves have been jangled so that it feels as if all your muscles have been violently wrenched. Think lightning strike (sans deafness), and the pain is probably similar. This kitten is clearly painful to the touch … all over.

The consequences are startling (not to say "shocking"), but they can be mitigated somewhat if an owner knows what to do. Again, according to VP:

Immediate veterinary care is needed, but several things you can do at home can minimize the extent of the injury and promote healing.

What to Do

•  Unplug the electrical cord or shut off the electricity. 

•  If this is not possible, use a dry wooden broom or other non-conductive object to move the pet away from the source of the electricity.  

•  Check for breathing and pulse. Begin CPCR (formerly called CPR) if necessary.  

•  If the pet is breathing, check the mouth for burns if this can be done safely. Apply cool compresses to burns.  

•  Cover the pet with a blanket to prevent heat loss.  

•  Seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.

What NOT to Do

•  Do not fail to get the pet examined even though he or she seems perfectly normal after being separated from the source of electricity. 

•  Do not give any medications or liquids unless instructed to by a veterinarian.

In this kitty's case, his blood loss was so severe a transfusion was necessary. He's also getting hydromorphone for his pain and lots of supportive care in the form of IV fluids and warming blankets, among other clinical niceties.

If he survives he'll be one lucky kitten. And his owner? She's busy buying up all the cord covers The Container Store has to offer. If you've got curious cats and lots of exciting-looking seasonal wiring, I suggest you follow her lead.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: "Christmas 2007 206" by dierken