Nicotine or Tobacco Poisoning in Pets

Effects of Tobacco Products Like Cigarettes and E-Cigarettes on Dogs and Cats

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Second-hand cigarette smoke has been proven to be dangerous to pets and people. Discarded tobacco or nicotine products, like cigarette or cigar butts, nicotine patches, nicotine gum, e-cigarette fluid, and chewing tobacco are all dangerous. 

All of these tobacco products contain nicotine, and even in fairly small amounts, can cause illness or death. The danger caused by these products can be dire even if pets, especially curious puppies, give these items a taste test.

Be mindful that these toxic hazards may be around you and if they are, be extra careful how small items like cigarette butts are discarded in or around your home. Do not let pets have access to these items at all.

Toxic Tobacco 

Nicotine acts fast. Often, pets will show signs of poisoning within one hour of ingestion. The first thing the body—pet or human—tries to do after ingestion of tobacco or nicotine in an unsafe amount is to get rid of it, which may be exhibited by vomiting. The most common signs of tobacco or nicotine toxicity can seem like a drug overdose.

Even if your pet vomits, a veterinarian should still see your pet. The vet should check your pet's heart rate, blood pressure, and brain activity. The doctor may even decide to give IV fluids after your pet vomits or give medications if your pet experiences some effects from the nicotine like seizures or elevated blood pressure.

Signs or Symptoms

If you feel your dog might have ingested tobacco products and you start to see a few worrisome signs, you should call the poison hotline or seek emergency treatment immediately.

Common signs of nicotine toxicity can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Trembling
  • Drooling
  • Constricted pupils
  • Excitement
  • Odd behavior
  • Seizures

What Is a Toxic Dose?

A toxic dose of nicotine in pets is 1/2 to 1 mg per pound of pet body weight, while a lethal dose is 4 mg per pound of pet body weight. A cigarette contains from 8 to 20 mg of nicotine, while the gum used by people trying to quit smoking contains about 2 to 4 mg of nicotine.

Since the type of nicotine and the size of the animal can vary greatly, it makes it difficult to have a "one size fits all" answer. "A 40-pound dog would get very sick after eating one cigarette but would need 11 cigarettes to die from nicotine poisoning," says Wendy Brooks, D.V.M. 

What Is the Treatment for Nicotine Toxicity?

Ingestion of nicotine is considered an emergency, and time is of the essence. If your pet has potentially swallowed a nicotine product, bring the product and make a note of how much the animal consumed. Your veterinarian will need to know this in order to aggressively treat your pet for poisoning.

It is likely that your vet will want to induce vomiting if the animal hasn't already vomited, administer activated charcoal, and start supportive therapy in the form of IV fluids and medications to control seizures and other nervous system effects. The sooner your pet can rid its body of the nicotine (by vomiting and breakdown in the liver), the better your pet's prognosis.

Tobacco can be caustic to the stomach. Because of this caustic effect, you might feel like you want to give your pet antacids to calm the stomach but don't. Actually, you want to keep the stomach acids churning.

Those acids are inhibiting the stomach's absorption of nicotine. 

If the material does make it out of the stomach, unfortunately, nicotine can be absorbed well from the small intestines. Your pet's best bet is a prompt treatment to prevent the toxin from getting into the small intestines and into the bloodstream.

Problem With E-Cigarettes

Since the emergence of e-cigarettes in 2003, you would think with fewer packs of cigarette laying around, that the danger of tobacco toxicity in pets would have dropped. Quite the opposite, the danger seems to have increased. A popular pet poison hotline has encountered a sharp uptick (a doubling in calls) concerning cases of nicotine poisoning in pets that had ingested e-cigarettes or liquid nicotine used in e-cigarettes. While dogs account for a majority of cases, the device and its components are toxic to cats as well.

The big problem with e-cigarettes is the amount of nicotine in each cartridge, which is between 6 mg and 24 mg. Each cartridge contains the nicotine equivalent of one to two traditional cigarettes. But cartridges come in multipacks, some with more than 100 cartridges. If your pet decides to go to town on a bunch at a time, your pet can be in a very dangerous situation, really fast.

Keep in mind that even a single cartridge can be dangerous for a pet. A 50-pound dog might be OK, it will likely experience some signs of poisoning. But if a dog that weighs 10 pounds ingests the same amount, death is possible.