An estimated 50 million people are smokers in the United States. As a non-smoker and someone that becomes nauseated by second-hand smoke, I will never understand the appeal of smoking. However, being married to a cigarette smoker I have witnessed the “hold” cigarettes can have over a person. Even with the help of gum, nicotine patches, Chantix and acupuncture, my husband has been unable to kick the habit for good.
Recently, my husband has switched to using the electronic cigarettes. Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, are battery-operated devices designed to look like regular tobacco cigarettes. They work when an atomizer heats liquid containing nicotine and turns it into a vapor that can be inhaled. The vapor inhaled and then exhaled is free of carcinogens and is thus safer, so they say, and with little to no odor, thus making them less offensive.
With the claim that e-cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes, they are gaining popularity quickly. However, their increase is spurring warnings about nicotine toxicity in pets. Last month, a 14-week-old puppy in the UK died after chewing and puncturing her owner’s e-cigarette filler. She had ingested just a small amount of the nicotine fluid.
Most tobacco-containing products taste horrible so pets tend to avoid eating them. In the case of the e-cigarettes, the nicotine fluid called e-juice comes in all kinds of flavors, ranging from peanut butter pie to blueberries. These flavors may make them especially attractive to your pet. Aside from the nicotine, the actual e-cigarette can result in oral injury when chewed and the risk of a possible foreign body obstruction if swallowed.
The toxic dose of nicotine is 0.5 mg to 1 mg per pound of body weight of your pet while the lethal dose is 4 mg per pound of body weight. Each e-juice bottle contains 6 mg to 24 mg of nicotine. This is the nicotine equivalent of 1 to 2 regular cigarettes. Ingestion of a single bottle can result in clinical signs for a 50-pound dog and potentially death for a dog less than 10 pounds. Dosages of other nicotine products are: cigars (up to 40 mg), chewing tobacco (6-8 mg per gram), nicotine gum (2-4 mg per piece) and patches (8.3-114 mg).
Nicotine is a rapid acting toxin and, often, pets will show signs of poisoning within an hour of ingestion. Dogs can develop clinical signs of vomiting, diarrhea, agitation, elevations in heart rate and breathing rate, tremors, incoordination, seizures and collapse. Without treatment, nicotine toxicity can cause paralysis of the breathing muscles and your pet may die from an inability to breathe.
A pet with nicotine toxicity should be taken to your veterinarian or emergency facility immediately. The goal is to remove the nicotine from the stomach while supportively caring for your pet while the nicotine is removed from the body. It’s helpful to know what nicotine product and how much your pet may have ingested. Do not give your pet any antacid medications, such as Pepcid, since stomach acid prevents further absorption of the nicotine.
Upon arrival, your veterinarian may induce vomiting to reduce further absorption of the nicotine. If your pet cannot be induced to vomit, he may “pump” your pets stomach or give activated charcoal. Intravenous fluids are given to help the body eliminate the nicotine from the body. Other medications may need to be given that help slow the heart rate or stop tremors and seizures.
The prognosis is good when small amounts of nicotine are ingested and treatment is started immediately. Prompt and appropriate veterinary care can save your pets life so don’t do the “wait and see” approach. Home remedies are not effective with this exposure because of the severity of the clinical signs with even small doses. Most of the nicotine is eliminated from the body within 16 to 20 hours so only a 24-hour hospitalization is needed.
As always, prevention is the best medicine. The e-cigarettes, e-juice bottles, and all other nicotine products should be kept out of the reach of pets and children as you would with regular cigarettes. Don’t forget to keep those ash trays, cigarette butts and used nicotine patches cleaned up as well.
Dr. April Shattuck is a 2004 graduate from The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine, an Army wife and proud mother of two beautiful daughters and an adorable son. She practices small animal emergency medicine at the West Central Ohio Veterinary Emergency Service Hospital.