Being near an electrical path to ground in your house is the least safe place to be during a storm. That goes for both humans and dogs. Typical paths include household wiring, walls or floors with internal iron rebar, and the one that’s important to this post: plumbing.
People have speculated that one reason some dogs are afraid of thunderstorms is that they can sense the buildup of static electricity. That may or may not be true. But a quite unsafe conclusion has been drawn from that idea: that it’s good to let dogs hide near plumbing during a storm. Everything we know about lightning strikes to houses suggests otherwise.
Are Dogs Responding to Static Electricity When They Show Fear of Storms?
The theory that static electricity is part of what bothers storm-phobic dogs has been investigated in one study that I know of by Nicole Cottam and Nicholas Dodman Cottam, Nicole, and Nicholas H. Dodman. “Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported anti-static cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia … Continue reading. The response of dogs wearing an antistatic cape called the Storm Defender® was compared to that of dogs wearing a cape without the anti-static material.
The study had a null result. Here is the conclusion:
There was no statistically significant difference between the StormDefender and placebo cape groups in their treatment anxiety scores or owner global assessment. Both the StormDefender and the placebo cape were found to be moderately therapeutic for treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia. A placebo effect or ‘‘deep pressure touch’’ are possible explanations for the owner-reported therapeutic effect. (p. 83-84)
This is only one study and we can’t say that the lack of evidence “disproves” the static electricity theory—either that dogs are bothered by it during storms or that such a cape can ameliorate it. But there was a chance of showing evidence to support those things, and that evidence didn’t show up.
Going to Ground
Whether or not dogs respond in a special way to static electricity, the discussion about it often triggers a common assumption that might put dogs in danger.
It’s frequently pointed out that many dogs hide in the bathroom next to plumbing. Some people claim that this is because the plumbing can be made of metal and connected to ground. The idea is that being close to a path to ground has some kind of soothing effect. I had a talk with my “science advisor” about the claims about being grounded and we agree that there are big problems with this idea from a basic physics standpoint. But I’m … Continue reading
I don’t know whether dogs who hide in bathrooms are “seeking ground” or just finding an enclosed, dark place to hide. But being next to metal plumbing or any path to ground is not a good place to be when lightning is nearby.
Here is an excerpt from the U.S. Government instructions for safety during lightning:
Avoid contact with corded phones and devices including those plugged into electric for recharging. Cordless and wireless phones not connected to wall outlets are OK to use.
Avoid contact with electrical equipment or cords. Unplug appliances and other electrical items such as computers and turn off air conditioners. Power surges from lightning can cause serious damage.
Avoid contact with plumbing. Do not wash your hands, do not take a shower, do not wash dishes, and do not do laundry. Plumbing and bathroom fixtures can conduct electricity.
Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.
Do not lie on concrete floors and do not lean against concrete walls.
What Can Happen When You Are Close to the Path to Ground?
We want to be the farthest possible away from where lightning may strike and from the most direct paths to ground. Most people know that you shouldn’t take cover under a tree during a lightning storm. Lightning often will strike at the highest place in an area, and being right next to or touching a tree that gets struck means you will probably take some of the punch. You can think of it that way in your house. Places where electricity is likely to travel—walls with lots of electrical wiring or iron rebar, devices that are connected to that wiring (like corded phones), and places with metal plumbing fixtures possibly attached to metal pipes—are like the tree. They are places to avoid, not seek out. If lightning strikes your house and passes through to ground, that electrical current can go through you (or your dog) if you touching the area or close by.
Making Choices About Safety in a Thunderstorm
The risk of being struck by lightning is so low that it is a metaphor for an extremely uncommon occurrence. But given a choice, I generally won’t hang out in the bathroom during thunderstorms, nor would I allow my dogs to do so. Take a look again at those copper pipes and the metal tub in the photo above.
But there’s one exception. I live in an area where there are tornados, and the one room in my house that has no exterior walls (said to be safest during high winds) is a bathroom. So during an active tornado warning for my area, the dogs and I troop to the bathroom. Since tornadic storms also usually have thunder and lightning, in that particular situation we are trading one risk for another. But I’m working on getting a better tornado shelter.
Some structures may have lightning protection systems in place. Some homes have most of their plumbing made from PVC, which certainly doesn’t conduct like copper. How about your house? Can you figure where the safest place is?
Regarding comments: Please note that this blog is not about whether or not dogs have special senses about static electricity or about why individual dogs might react certain ways during storms. Because of time constraints on my part, I am asking people to refrain from sending comments with anecdotes about dogs and storms. Let’s stick to storm safety and save the other topics for future posts.
Evidence that Being Close to Plumbing is Dangerous in a Storm
The following links are from sources I find reputable. The articles are not peer-reviewed research, but the advice to stay away from plumbing is standard and backed by science. You can find accounts of indoor lightning strikes in medical literature if you care to search.
- New York Times: The Claim: Never Bathe or Shower in a Thunderstorm
- U.S. Government Safety Document: Thunderstorms and Lightning
- HowStuffWorks: Is It Dangerous To Bathe During A Thunderstorm?
- Pennington County Emergency: Is My Home Safe During Lightning?
- IEEE: How to Protect Your House and its Contents from Lightning
Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson
Thanks to Ingrid Bock for bringing this issue to my attention, and to my “science advisor” for letting me run this article by her.
|↑1||Cottam, Nicole, and Nicholas H. Dodman. “Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported anti-static cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia as assessed by owners’ reports.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 119.1 (2009): 78-84.|
|↑2||I had a talk with my “science advisor” about the claims about being grounded and we agree that there are big problems with this idea from a basic physics standpoint. But I’m saving that topic for a subsequent post.|