Nicotine 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 for animals.

All of these tobacco products contain nicotine, and even in fairly small amounts, can cause illness or death. Even if a pet only ingests a small amount of nicotine, the health effects can be dire.

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.

What is Nicotine Poisoning?

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 result in vomiting. The most common signs of tobacco or nicotine toxicity can seem like a drug overdose.

Even if your pet vomits, don't assume all of the nicotine it may have ingested has been purged. A veterinarian 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 side effects from the nicotine like seizures or elevated blood pressure.

Signs or Symptoms of Nicotine Poisoning

If you think your dog might have ingested tobacco products and you start to see worrisome signs, you should call the poison hotline or seek emergency treatment immediately. Common signs of nicotine toxicity can include:

  • Vomiting: Frequently, the vomit will show evidence of the nicotine ingestion, such as cigarette or cigar butts. It's gross, but make note of any such items to report it to the veterinarian. And as mentioned above, don't assume that because your pet throws up that it's out of danger.
  • Diarrhea: Similar to vomiting, there may be evidence of what your pet ingested. Again, it's gross, but make note of any items that shouldn't be in your pet's stool.
  • Drooling: This is an early sign that should be taken seriously. Excessive drooling is never a good sign in animals.
  • Constricted pupils: As in humans, this is a clear sign of toxicity.
  • Odd behavior: Your pet may appear lethargic and disoriented, bumping into things, or whining incessantly.
  • Seizures: If your pet begins shaking uncontrollably, this is always an indication that something serious is wrong.

What Is a Toxic Dose of Nicotine?

A toxic dose of nicotine in pets is 1/2 to 1 mg per pound of the animal's body weight, while a lethal dose is 4 mg per pound of body weight. A cigarette contains between 8 and 20 mg of nicotine, while nicotine gum (used by people trying to quit smoking) contains between 2 and 4 mg of nicotine per piece.

Chewing tobacco, which is often treated with honey or other sweeteners to make it more palatable, can be particularly enticing and thus dangerous for pets, since they may be attracted to the sweet flavor and eat a large amount.

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 something like 11 cigarettes to die from nicotine poisoning. However, there's no "safe" amount of nicotine for any animal.

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 (an estimate is OK). Your veterinarian will need to know this in order to accurately treat your pet for poisoning.

It is likely that your vet will want to induce vomiting if the animal hasn't already vomited. The vet will 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.

The veterinarian also will likely draw blood from your pet to determine how much nicotine is in its bloodstream, and if there are other toxins present. Unfortunately, if your pet has ingested nicotine gum, there's a chance it also may have suffered xylitol poisoning. Xylitol is a synthetic sweetner used in gums and candies, and can cause liver failure and in some cases, death, in animals.

Tobacco can be caustic to the stomach. You might think giving your pet antacids to calm its stomach is a good idea, but in this instance, it's not. It's better (albeit uncomfortable) 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, where it can do the most damage.

Problems 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 might be reduced. But pets can be poisoned by e-cigarettes or liquid nicotine used in e-cigarettes.

The biggest 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 explore a package of these cartridges, the animal could get very sick very quickly.

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