Nicotine Poisoning in Pets

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Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about our pets smoking, but they are still at risk for exposure to nicotine and are therefore at risk for nicotine toxicity due to products being present in their environment. 

What Is Nicotine Poisoning?

Nicotine poisoning refers to toxicity related to nicotine products. Dogs and cats, like people, have numerous nicotine receptors throughout their nervous systems that function normally under normal circumstances. If these receptors are over-stimulated by being exposed to excessive nicotine, symptoms develop. 

 Nicotine toxicity in dogs and cats is more common than most people think and has become more prevalent in recent years with e-cigarettes and pure liquid nicotine.  Nicotine is found in a variety of sources, primarily cigarettes, cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco, nicotine gum, nicotine inhalers, nicotine patches nicotine nasal spray and nicotine insecticides. It’s important to mention that nicotine gum usually contains the sweetener xylitol, which is also toxic to pets.

The degree to which our pets are affected by nicotine depends on how much is ingested and the weight of the animal. Symptoms have been reported at doses as low as 1mg/kg (milligram per kilogram of body weight) and the median lethal dose in dogs is 9.2mg/kg.

The average cigarette (depending on the brand and blend ) contains 9-30 mg of nicotine and the nicotine becomes concentrated in the cigarette butt, so an already smoked cigarette can still be very dangerous. E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that use a cartridge that contains a solution made up of diluent and nicotine. The thin plastic cartridges that are easy for a pet to chew, and the flavored “e-juice” solution is a dangerous combination. Each cartridge contains anywhere from 6mg to 24mg of nicotine.

Nicotine can be toxic even when administered in small amounts in cats and dogs. Even 5 mg of nicotine can be toxic for smaller canines. It is difficult to establish whether a nicotine gum or a patch causes toxicity, as this can depend on the size of your pet and if they chew the patch or gum before swallowing.

Signs of Nicotine Poisoning in Dogs

Symptoms can develop quickly and are dependent upon the amount and type of nicotine ingested relative to your cat or dog's body weight. Symptoms occur generally within 30 to 60 minutes of ingestions, but can sometimes be delayed several hours. This can be life-threatening to your pet, so contact your veterinarian immediately if you notice these symptoms.

Initially, you might see your pet being hyperactive or acting overexcited. They might also start drooling, experience vomiting or diarrhea, or even look like they are having trouble breathing. At higher doses or for longer exposures, your pet might show signs of weakness, start twitching or having muscle tremors and seizures, have an elevated heart rate, collapse, and even die.

Keep an eye out for hyperactivity, drooling, constricted pupils, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors/twitching, incoordination and/or stumbling, seizures, abnormal breathing, and collapse.

Once nicotine is ingested, signs typically develop within 1 hour. That makes suspected nicotine ingestion a real emergency. Call your veterinarian and proceed to the nearest emergency hospital quickly if your animal has ingested or you suspect that they have ingested nicotine.

Illustration of the signs of nicotine poisoning in dogs
 The Spruce / Alison Czinkota.

Causes of Nicotine Poisoning in Dogs 

The cause of nicotine poisoning in your dog is the ingestion of any of these items that contain nicotine: Cigarettes, cigars, E-cigarettes, e-cigarette liquids and cartridges, hand-rolling tobacco, nicotine gum, nicotine lozenges, nicotine mouth sprays, nicotine patches, pipes, and pipe tobacco.

Nicotine poisoning can appear similar to other toxicities, so be sure to mention to your veterinarian if you have any nicotine products in your home.

Treatment and Prognosis

As with any toxicity, early treatment and diagnosis are crucial. Your veterinarian will prevent absorption, promote excretion of the nicotine which has already been absorbed and provide medical treatment for symptoms your pet is displaying. 

This will most likely include inducing vomiting and administering activated charcoal, if it is safe to do so, in order to reduce the amount of nicotine absorbed by your pet’s body.

Treatment also includes managing convulsions and seizures, treating heart and blood pressure abnormalities, ensuring adequate respiration, and providing intravenous fluids to enhance nicotine elimination.  

The prognosis for nicotine toxicity depends significantly on the exposure dose. For instance, low-dose exposure has a good to excellent prognosis while the high-dose exposure is poor. However, if pets can be stabilized for the first 4 hours after intoxication for high-dose exposures, their prognosis for complete recovery is significantly improved.

How to Prevent Nicotine Poisoning 

Keep all nicotine-containing products including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and nicotine patches and gum away and out of reach from pets. When refilling e-cigarettes, fill them away from pets. 

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
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  1. Nicotine Is Toxic To DogsPet Poison Helpline, 2020