Dear daktari, I keep diary animals in the outskirts of Meru town. To ease the operations of my chuff cutter and milking early in the morning I have installed electricity in my small farm. One morning when my farm hand went out to milk the cows, he found one of the cows unconscious on the ground. When I was called, I tried pulling the animal up and it later stood, but to our surprise we found it had chewed the electric wire and had a burn mark on the lips. We called in a Vet who said it was a case of electrocution. I had never thought animals can be electrocuted. [Joseph Thuranira, Meru county]
How can livestock be electrocuted?
Yes, animals can suffer from electrocution just like humans do. Electrocution refers to death or injury resulting from electric shock. It results from either lightning strikes or electric power wires. When an animal comes into physical contact with electrical wires; this happens with exposed live electric wires. An animal can also chew electric wires. This can be a result of boredom or mineral deficiencies that result in pica. Grazing animals may also be electrocuted when electric posts fall in the field and are stepped on by the animal. Sugging electric wires can pass electricity through fences or building from where animals can be electrocuted. Cases of lightning strikes are seasonal and are endemic in certain geographical areas. Tall trees are prone to such lightning strikes and will charge the ground through their roots especially when the ground is wet. Loam and sandy soils are particularly good conductors of electricity.
The degree of injury depends on the strength of the current and the point of contact and the wetness of the surface. Death in cases of electrocution is caused by disruption of the pumping function of the heart of breathing action – cardiac or respiratory arrest respectively. Death occurs almost immediately in major electrocutions. In mild cases, an animal will be unconscious for a few minutes or for hours and thereafter recover. However, recovery may come with other health complications like blindness, excess muscle twitching, paralysis and depression. You are lucky your animal might have suffered a mild electrocution, but this can be deadly, nonetheless.
The electric shock can also cause the destruction of muscles and even fracturing of bones due to muscle contraction. Electrocution leaves scorch marks that tend to be linear – single marks. Sometimes the carcass may be burnt into ashes, dead animals under a tree, (this can affect a whole herd) after a storm may be indicative of a lightning strike. Rigor mortis in such cases develops and disappears faster than in normal circumstances. When you suspect electrocution, proceed with a lot of precaution because this can still happen to the animal or the farmer as the culprit wires may still be exposed. Once you find out that you are dealing with a case of electrocution from electricity secure the possible source and call a Vet.
Always check the integrity of electric wires to ensure, the insulation must be intact. Check for any fallen power lines to ensure they do not harm animals. Avoid leaving animals out in thunderstorms.
[The writer is a veterinary surgeon and head of communications at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Kenya. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FAO]