In a 2018 letter to syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson, “Horrified” shared how her family nearly lost their beloved pup.1 Not to an illness or injury, but to vaping liquid. Horrified’s husband spilled the liquid on the floor and the dog ingested it and almost died.
Horrified’s letter was brief, but SAGE Veterinary Center’s Emergency and Critical Care veterinarians can help fill in the details after years of treating pets who have ingested many different toxic substances:
What exactly is vaping liquid?
Vaping liquid, or e-liquid, is a substance that users add to battery-powered smoking devices, or e-cigarettes, e-pipes, etc. Vaping liquid generally contains nicotine and a mixture of flavorings, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, and other ingredients.2 When heated, the liquid turns into an aerosol that users inhale.
Why is vaping liquid dangerous to pets?
Glycerin and propylene glycol are not highly toxic to pets. On the other hand, nicotine is toxic when ingested.
The ingredients list for e-cigarette products are not easy to nail down, according to the Centers for Disease Control.3 Nicotine levels in vaping liquid can vary. Users can find a range of levels, from “nicotine free” to products that contain 25 milligrams per milliliter of nicotine.4 Some vaping sites say products can contain as much as 42 milligrams per milliliter of nicotine. It doesn’t take much for a pet to become dangerously ill after exposure to vaping liquid. Veterinarians report clinical signs of nicotine poisoning in dogs and cats exposed to as little as 0.5 milligram per pound of body weight.5
“Even more dangerous are the bottles of e-liquid that are used to recharge the e-cig cartridge: the nicotine in these bottles can range from 10 mL to 60 mL or more,” Dr. Sharon Gwaltney wrote in a 2014 article in Veterinary Partners. “So a 30-mL bottle of 36 mg/mL e-liquid will contain 1080 mg of nicotine, more than enough to prove fatal for even a very large dog if the contents are ingested.”
What happens physiologically when a pet gets into nicotine products?
Nicotine is a rapid acting toxin—it speeds the heart rate and can cause vomiting, collapse and other symptoms within an hour of ingestion.6
Dr. Robert Lukas, an Emergency veterinarian at SAGE Dublin says he has seen dogs who ingest tobacco products come into the hospital hyper-excited, panting and drooling. Some have had high heart rates, and some have had mild muscle tremors (their muscles are moving as if they are shivering). Most of these patients have vomited, or have developed diarrhea.
“Thankfully, I have not seen the toxicities that have been so bad that they lead to stupor or coma or collapse that require oxygen or a ventilator,” Dr. Lukas says.
How do veterinarians treat nicotine ingestion?
Dr. Lukas says he evaluates the nicotine product and how long it has been since ingestion before deciding how to move forward.
“If it is the liquid and it has been more than 30 to 60 minutes, we are not likely to evacuate the product through vomiting,” Dr. Lukas says. “If we are working with plant-based tobacco ingestion and we see the patient in the first hour after ingestion (maybe 2 hours – depends on how much was eaten), I am more likely to want to see if we can get more material out through induced vomiting. I only do this if they are breathing well, conscious and have a good swallow reflex.”
Veterinarians may also use activated charcoal, which they administer orally, to absorb a liquid toxin. Activated charcoal keeps the toxin in the stomach and intestines, limiting absorption into the bloodstream.
If the dog has symptoms of toxicity (such as high heart rates and tremors), or if he is worried about it coming in the next few hours, Dr. Lukas will hospitalize the pet to give it IV fluids, and drugs to calm them if needed.
“The first 4 to 6 hours after ingestion tell the tale of how bad it will be,” Dr. Lukas says. “Most nicotine is out of the system after 18 hours, although urine drug tests can be positive for up to 4 days.”
2 U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/TobaccoProducts/Labeling/ProductsIngredientsComponents/ucm456610.htm
3 “Electronic Cigarettes: What’s the Bottom Line?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarettes/pdfs/Electronic-Cigarettes-Infographic-508.pdf
4 The Keck School of Medicine reported a high of 25 mg/mL: https://mphdegree.usc.edu/blog/understanding-the-implications-of-vaping-and-e-cigarettes/
5 “Electronic Cigarettes are Toxic to Pets,” Sharon M. Gwaltney-Brant, DVM, PhD, DABT, DABVT. Veterinary Partners, March 31, 2014. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&id=6176173
6 Pet Poison Helpline. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poison/nicotine/