E-cigarettes and Pet Safety

By Renee Schmid, DVM, DABVT, DABT; Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Electronic cigarettes are also known as e-cigs, vapes, tank systems, vape pens, or electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). Either way, they are battery-operated devices used to create and inhale an aerosol composed of nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals. The devices can take on many forms, looking like traditional cigarettes (called cig-a-likes), cigars, or pipes, or even everyday items like pens or USB memory sticks. Most are designed to be reusable with replaceable or refillable cartridges, though some are disposable.

The risk to humans from electronic cigarettes is much the same as with regular cigarettes – inhalation of nicotine plus carcinogens and toxic chemicals in the vapor. Toxic nanoparticles of metals such as nickel, chromium, and cadmium have also been found in the vapor, and may come from the heating coils of the vaping device itself. However, the risk to animals from e-cigarettes often lies with ingesting the e-liquid itself.

Nicotine Toxicity

E-liquids containing nicotine are made by extracting the nicotine from tobacco, and then mixing it together with a base (e.g., propylene glycol) plus some flavoring. Colorings and other chemicals (e.g., formaldehyde) may also be added. The e-liquids are then sold in pre-filled cartridges or in large bulk bottles with which a user can refill empty cartridges.

Signs of nicotine poisoning occur rapidly in companion animals ingesting an e-liquid due to the quick absorption of liquids in the gastrointestinal tract. Signs can be seen within 15-30 minutes of ingestion of an e-liquid, versus 30-90 minutes after ingestion of more traditional forms of tobacco. Signs of nicotine toxicity can include vomiting, drooling, diarrhea, agitation, rapid breathing, high or low heart rate, abnormal heart rate, tremors, muscle weakness and wobbliness, high or low blood pressure, respiratory depression, and seizures. Coma, cyanosis (blue gums), and death are even possible with high-dose exposures.

“Signs can be seen within 15 to 30 minutes of ingestion of an e-liquid..."

Prompt treatment at a veterinary clinic is needed for nicotine poisoning. Home care is not advised even with exposure to small doses. Treatment that can be expected includes close monitoring for and treatment of both heart and neurologic abnormalities. Intravenous fluids, blood pressure and EKG monitoring, muscle relaxants, anticonvulsants, anti-nausea medications, and other drugs are often needed to treat an animal suffering from nicotine poisoning. Signs may resolve within several hours in minor exposures, or they may persist for over 24 hours, in severe cases.

Why are e-cigarettes so dangerous for pets?

Animals are exposed when they chew on pre-filled cartridges or bulk refill bottles containing an e-liquid, ingesting nicotine in the process. The nicotine content of e-liquids can vary from relatively low levels (akin to an ultra-light cigarette per milliliter) to extra-high levels (1.5 times a strong, unfiltered cigarette per milliliter). The exposure to substantial doses of nicotine with ingestion of an e-liquid is possible, especially if a multi-pack of cartridges or a bulk refill bottle has been chewed. Severe nicotine poisoning and even death can result.

In addition to the risk from the e-liquid, swallowing the e-cigarette casing or the battery is dangerous, too. The casing and battery are not digestible and can cause gastrointestinal injury or blockages. The rechargeable battery can burn the esophagus if pets swallow it. Suffice it to say that there is no safe part of an e-cigarette! Xylitol can be found in nicotine gums and e-cigarette liquid. This ingredient may cause a drop in blood sugar and liver damage. Paying close attention to all ingredients is important to ensure your pet is treated appropriately.

How can I prevent e-cigarette related toxicity?

The answer here is simple: to prevent nicotine poisonings, keep e-cigarettes and refill containers away from pets. In fact, keep all nicotine-containing products out of reach, including traditional cigarettes, cigars, nicotine patches and even gum!

Suspected ingestion of an e-liquid is a real emergency! Because of the rapid onset and severity of illness, home care is generally not possible with nicotine exposure. If you believe your pet has ingested nicotine, call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline, a 24/7 animal poison control center, at 1-800-213-6680 and proceed to the nearest veterinary clinic quickly.

Pet Poison Helpline, an animal poison control center based out of Minneapolis, MN is available 24/7 for pet owners and veterinary professionals that require assistance treating a potentially poisoned pet. The staff provides treatment advice for poisoning cases of all species, including dogs, cats, birds, small mammals, large animals and exotic species. As the most cost-effective option for animal poison control care, Pet Poison Helpline’s per incident fee includes follow-up consultations for the duration of the poison case. Pet Poison Helpline is available in North America by calling 800-213-6680. Additional information can be found online at www.petpoisonhelpline.com

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