Nicotine is found in a number of products including cigarettes, cigars, snuff and tobacco. Obviously, it is also present in those products intended to help smokers give up their habit, such as nicotine patches and gum. All of these products are potentially hazardous for pets, however nicotine toxicity is rare in dogs and cats.
Animals generally find nicotine type products such as cigarettes unpalatable. This means they are unlikely to eat them when they come across them. If they do consume cigarettes or similar material they are quite likely to vomit soon afterwards which helps to limit the amount of nicotine which is absorbed in the stomach. (The acidity of the stomach also means that nicotine is only slowly absorbed here; however absorption is faster in the rest of the gut). These factors all help to decrease the risk of a serious problem developing should an animal eat products containing nicotine.
Perhaps young puppies are more at risk of nicotine poisoning than other animals due to their habit of chewing all sorts of things they should not, and because their relatively small size means a single cigarette could prove to be a serious problem. However if you believe that your pet has ingested material which may contain nicotine you should always contact your vet urgently since there is a risk of a serious problem developing whatever the age or size of the animal.
Signs of nicotine poisoning in pets includes excessive salivation, vomiting, diarrhoea, excitement, tremors, weakness, twitching, and convulsions. Cardiac and respiratory problems may subsequently develop; these may be life-threatening. The severity of signs depends upon how much nicotine has been consumed.
Often the diagnosis is made easy because animals have been seen eating these products or will vomit cigarette packets and other packaging along with chewed up cigarettes etc. The vomit may also have the characteristic smell of tobacco.
Treatment includes inducing the animal to vomit and then giving activated charcoal which helps to absorb toxins in the gut. I/V fluids may also help by speeding up the elimination of nicotine via the kidneys. The animal should be closely monitored and specific treatment for seizures, cardiac and respiratory problems may also be required if such signs develop.
The prognosis for any animal which has consumed a large amount of material containing nicotine is poor and the first four hours or so tend to be the most critical. It is possible for animals to make a full recovery following this type of poisoning but often aggressive supportive therapy is needed if there is to be a positive outcome.
As with all potentially toxic material it is always better to ensure that animals do not have access to it in the first place. So keep your cigarettes, cigars and nicotine gum, etc well out of the way of your pets.