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Nicotine Toxicity in Pets

Recently here at Greenbrier Emergency Animal Hospital, we had a patient that presented with full body tremors, was drooling, was excited, and started vomiting and experiencing diarrhea. The owner had stated the dog was normal in the morning, and the dog’s presentation condition was consistent with her getting into something. However, after asking the owner numerous questions, we were unable to identify what the dog potentially could have ingested. It wasn’t until the next morning, when the owner was smoking, that she noticed several cigarette butts in front of her house were missing.

Nicotine toxicity in dogs and cats is more common than most people think, and it is especially common in pets with owners who leave cigarette packs out or toss cigarette butts outside. Nicotine is most commonly found in cigarettes, cigars, nicotine gum and candy, and nicotine transdermal patches. The average cigarette (depending on the brand, blend and whether it is marketed as a “light cigarette”) contains 13-40 mg of nicotine, and it doesn’t take much nicotine to cause problems — the lethal dose for a dog is 9.2 mg of nicotine per kilogram of your pet’s body weight. Incidentally, an average cigarette butt contains about 25 percent of the nicotine present in an unsmoked cigarette, so they can be toxic as well.

Nicotine gum actually has to be chewed — not swallowed (which most dogs will do) — to release nicotine. However, the sweetener xylitol, which is also toxic to pets, is often added to nicotine gum.

Once nicotine is ingested, signs typically develop within 15-90 minutes. However, in some cases it can take hours for symptoms to emerge. 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, have an elevated heart rate, collapse, and even die. So nicotine toxicity is a potentially life-threatening condition.

As with any toxicity, early treatment and diagnosis are crucial, so be sure to bring your pet to your regular vet or to Greenbrier Emergency Animal Hospital. If your pet is not already vomiting upon arrival, a drug is typically given to make them vomit. Activated charcoal is also administered to help absorb nicotine from the GI tract. Your pet will also likely be put on IV fluids; started on antacids; and given oxygen, if they are having trouble breathing. Usually within 24 hours of treatment, your pet should be almost back to normal (although diarrhea can sometimes take 1-3 days to resolve).

Our cigarette butt eater here at Greenbrier came through just fine, but the experience should serve as a reminder to all pet owners who smoke: Keep your cigarettes, cigars and other nicotine-containing products out of reach of your pet. And think twice before just tossing that cigarette butt!

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