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“That is as likely as getting struck by lightning” is a common phrase when referring to an unlikely event, and for the most part it is true. In any given year the odds are only 1 in 500,000 of being lightning struck. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, reports an annual death toll for humans at about 51. But over the course of an 80 year lifespan the odds drop to only a 1 in 6,250 chance of being struck by lightning. And certainly living on the southern Florida coast increases the odds considerably.

Records for animals struck and killed by lightning are not nearly as complete. It is estimated by the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University that hundreds of livestock are killed annually by lightning. According to department spokesman Brent McRoberts, “the Department of Agriculture says lightning causes about 80% of all accidental livestock deaths.” He comments further that “livestock often huddle together under a large tree during a thunderstorm, which we know is one of the worst places to be.”

Statistics for lightning strike in pets is virtually non-existent. But often their exposure and inability to find protection can be more limited. Dogs left out in large, open fenced yards may have little protection from lightning strike. Shelter in a dog house or under a tree would present greater risk. Dogs chained to metal poles, metal lines, or trees are at significant risk in a storm. Outdoor cats may seek shelter under or in the motor compartment of cars. If struck, the metallic body of the car conducts electricity, which could kill or injure the cat. An owner starting the car later presents an even greater potential for death or injury.  

NOAA advises that the best protection from lightning is a fully enclosed building. Warnings of potential storms should prompt pet owners to provide the protection of the house, garage, or barn for their pets. It is important that such enclosures be secure so the pets cannot escape to the outdoors. The sound of the thunder is far more frightful than the lightning for many pets; they will seek to flee and may be caught in the storm, or in much worse circumstances.

Thunder can have the same effect as firecrackers and fireworks. Fear of loud fireworks turned my dog, Roxy, into an escape artist. She fled from her original owner’s place of business and wound up trapped in a drainage ditch with compound fractures of both “wrists” until her rescue five weeks later.

A common mistake made by pet owners is to wait until the last minute to think about protecting their pet. NOAA says one of the biggest myths people have about lightning is that it can’t happen if it is not raining. In fact, lightning can strike ten miles or more in front of a storm, from clear, blue skies. These "bolts from the blue" are common in all thunderstorms.

If you are out with your dog and are caught by an unexpected storm, seek shelter as quickly as possible. NOAA advises that counting the seconds from a flash of lightning to the sound of thunder and dividing that number by 5 will estimate how many miles you are away from the storm. Estimates of five miles or less requires immediate action. NOAA suggests:

  • Seek shelter in a fully enclosed building
  • Immediately flee elevated areas such as hills, bridges, or highway overpasses
  • Never lie flat on the ground
  • Stay away from bodies of water
  • Stay away from objects that conduct electricity (wire fences, electrical wires)
  • If forced into your car, avoid contact with door handles, steering wheels, or panel controls

Preparedness is always better than trying to react during a crisis. Prepare a safe, secure, and comfortable environment for your pet before a storm. Consult your veterinarian for medications that might help calm your pet and reduce its fear of the storm.

For more information go the NOAA website: Lightning Safety: When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors! 

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Thinkstock

You might also like to read:

Thunderstorm Phobias in Dogs


Catching Your Dog's Noise and Storm Phobia Early

Five Tips for Calming Your Pet During Thunderstorms

Nine Ways to Handle Your Dog’s Fear of Thunderstorms

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