Unlike hotshots, regular prods are simply used to tap, strike, or poke an animal (usually on the flanks), depending on how stubborn the animal is. Sometimes, a prod can be used as a sort of "extended fence", allowing one to simply intimidate skittish animals away from open gates or downed fences without having to touch them.
A hotshot is typically cylindrical, and can carry an open electric current at the "shock end" when activated. The electric current at the shock end runs through two metal electrodes. Anything which touches the electric current receives a high-voltage low-current shock, not strong enough to kill a human or a large animal such as a cow or sheep from short-term exposure, but it is enough to cause significant pain.
The electric cattle prod was originally created to apply a painful shock to cattle, and thus "prod" them along; the pain stimulates movement. Some higher-voltage hotshots can interfere with radio and CB radio reception when activated.
There are various designs of electric cattle prods. Their shape is often subject to guidelines of what can easily be used and handled. They range in length from 6 inches (usually of a more encased rectangular prism design like a stun gun), to up to 6 feet. Anything out of that range is usually too heavy and unwieldy for practical use. Another typical design is a box containing a large battery (or battery pack) at the handle end and wires embedded in a fiberglass rod, ending with two electrodes in a rubber tip: this design is well-suited for use as a regular cattle prod.
The picana is an electric prod based originally on the cattle prod but designed specifically for human torture. It works at very high voltage and low current so as to maximise pain and minimise the physical marks left on the victim. Among its advantages over other torture devices is that it is portable, easy to use and allows the torturer to localise the electric shocks to the most sensitive places on the body, where they cause intense pain that can be repeated many times.
Electric prods have been used for the control of adverse self-injuring behavior in mentally handicapped people. This use is regarded by some advocates to be more effective than drugs since the experience of a shock is very short and temporary while using a drug may have long-lasting sedative effects.
Cattle prods are often used because the human handlers are making an assumption that the animals are just "dumb stubborn beasts" that must be forced and punished into compliance. But rather than being stubborn, often cattle will not move forward when they are fearful of something they see, hear, or smell. Removal of these distractions or hiding them such as with solid wall partitions can greatly reduce animal handling problems. If the animals are relaxed and comfortable with the handler and feel safe in the working environment, the cattle are in fact quite friendly and curious, and will happily follow the handler without any need for forceful punishment.
By studying the psychology of the animals and redesigning the working environment it is possible to handle the animals without the need for brute force and causing pain and suffering to the animal. Significant work in this regard has been done by the autistic woman Temple Grandin to study how cattle perceive the environment around them and to design better livestock slaughterhouse handling systems that do not induce fear into the animal.
Overly excited animals have a greater potential to slip and fall, leading to bruising of the skin and muscle, and a poor meat grade by the packing plant meat inspectors. Likewise, animals which are startled and excited to the point of running into barriers or other animals can cause deep flesh wounds which results in scar tissue and the loss of valuable meat sections in the slaughtering and processing phase.