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Nicotine is a poisonous alkaloid derived from the tobacco plant and used in medicine and as an insecticide. 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. However, the fact that nicotine alone is an extremely toxic poison often goes unmentioned. Not many people realize that nicotine is sold commercially in the form of a pesticide.
Nicotine is toxic to humans if enough is ingested at once, and many children are seen in emergency rooms every year after eating cigarettes or cigarette butts. Ironically, the dizziness and nausea that hit people after smoking their first cigarette is actually a very mild case of nicotine poisoning.
Nicotine is toxic to our cats, too. The most common source of nicotine is tobacco products like cigarettes, cigarette butts and even nicotine gum and patches. Some cats are attracted to the products like chewing tobacco that are supplemented with flavors such as honey, molasses, syrups and other sugars.
The toxic level of nicotine in cats is 5 milligrams of nicotine per pound of body weight.
Some examples of nicotine products and nicotine amounts are as follows:
- One cigarette contains 15 to 25 milligrams of nicotine depending on the brand.
- Other examples of product that include nicotine include nicotine patches which contain between 8 to 114 milligrams of nicotine.
- Nicotine gum contains approximately 2 to 4 milligrams of nicotine per piece.
- Each E-Cigarette Cartridge contains 6 mg to 24 mg of Nicotine.
- The nicotine inhalers contain about 4 mg per puff or 10 mg per cartridge.
- The nasal sprays contain approximately 80 to 100 milligram per bottle or 0.5 milligram per spray.
- A cigar contains approximately 15 to 40 milligrams of nicotine.
- The butt of a cigarette can contain from 4 to 8 milligrams
depending on the length of the butt and the content of the original cigarette. Cigarette butts have a deceptively large amount of tobacco relative to the size of the butt as smoking concentrates some of the nicotine in the cigarette butt.
- Chewing tobacco contains approximately 6 to 8 mg of nicotine per gram.
- Snuff contains approximately 12 to 17 mg of nicotine per gram.
A 10-pound cat would only need to eat 2-4 cigarettes in order to show toxic signs. You should note that even after smoking, tobacco retains a significant amount of nicotine residue.
What To Watch For
The clinical signs of toxicity are dependent upon the amount and type of nicotine ingested relative to your cat’s body weight. The signs of toxicity are dose-dependent and generally, begin within one hour of ingestion. Many cats will vomit naturally after ingestion.
When large amounts are consumed, the effects can be life-threatening, but even small amounts can induce symptoms. Without treatment, nicotine toxicity can cause paralysis of the breathing muscles and your cat may die from an inability to breathe, sometimes within a few hours. If your cat exhibits any of the following symptoms, call your veterinarian.
- Stumbling and/or incoordination
- Lethargy (in high doses)
- Fast breathing or difficulty breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Possible seizures
- Either bradycardia (slow heart rate), tachycardia (high heart rate) and/or cardiac arrhythmias
Diagnosis of nicotine toxicity is generally based on a history of exposure to or eating of nicotine products and development of some of the toxic signs.
Advanced testing can be completed to confirm exposure as needed however this is not routinely done. Nicotine can be detected in blood, urine, and from stomach contents. Some human and veterinary diagnostic laboratories can run these confirmatory tests.
The immediate treatment is to reduce the amount of nicotine in the stomach while keeping your cat alive until the nicotine is broken down by the body. Despite treatment, some cats that have ingested large amounts of nicotine may not survive.
Your veterinarian might do any of the following:
- Induction of vomiting if you witnessed the nicotine ingestion and the cat is alert. Ask your veterinarian for advice. It is recommended to NOT use antacids as the acid in the stomach helps decrease the absorption of nicotine.
- If exposure was dermal, bathing the patient immediately using a mild dish-washing soap is recommended.
- Pumping the stomach (gastric lavage) may be recommend if large amounts were ingested.
- Repeated doses of activated charcoal is used to reduce further nicotine absorption.
- A ventilator to assist with breathing until the toxin can be cleared from their system for severely affected cats.
- Intravenous fluids help to enhance elimination of the nicotine.
- Other supportive care as needed such as oxygen, seizure control medications such as diazepam (valium).
The prognosis is good when small amounts are ingested and treatment is prompt and aggressive. The prognosis is poor with large ingestions. If an animal survives the first four to five hours, the prognosis is considered good. Most of the nicotine is eliminated form the body within 16 to 20 hours.
If nicotine ingestion is witnessed, induction of vomiting may prevent the toxic signs of nicotine poisoning. Consult your veterinarian or local emergency facility for instructions regarding inducing vomiting at home.
Once the signs of nicotine toxicity have developed, home treatment is not effective and immediate treatment by a veterinarian is encouraged.
The best prevention is to eliminate the source of nicotine. Keep cigarettes, cigars, and all nicotine products out of the reach of your cats. This includes ashtrays, chewed nicotine gum and used nicotine patches. Remember, even ash and used products still have residual nicotine. The amount of ingestion required for toxicity is a lot higher than with the unused product, but the potential for toxicity is still there.