By Terri Perrin
I once worked as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic. From my vantage point at the front desk, I was able to observe our clients as they parked their cars before they came in for their appointments. I will never forget one client who always had a cigarette hanging from her mouth while driving in her car. She was repeatedly bringing her droopy-eyed Bassett Hound in for chronic eye irritation. The poor dog’s mucous membranes were angry red and inflamed. He was in obvious and severe discomfort. And, the client reported, “Buster” was constantly rubbing his face and eyes along carpets, furniture and the back seat of the car.
“My friends warned me that this breed could be prone to eye problems,” complained the client. “I should have listened to them! Treating these eye infections is getting so expensive and it’s very frustrating because nothing seems to help!”
As a receptionist, it was not my place to give a second opinion on the veterinarian’s diagnosis and treatment of Buster’s eyes. But we all knew that it was not the droopy eyes that were the root cause of the problem — the irritation was, without question, the result of repeated exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke. Confined to the back seat of the car, while the woman happily puffed away in the front seat, Buster’s poor eyes (and nose) were being constantly irritated by smoke. The only real “cure” for his condition was for the woman to stop smoking around her dog.
As a society, we have made great strides in protecting people from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. Public buildings are smoke-free and those who chose to breathe in “firsthand” cigarette smoke are assigned to designated smoking areas. We have become more conscientious about the dangers of smoking around children. But what about our pets? Can your smoking cause your pets harm? You bet!
The very real dangers of nicotine and carcinogens
Both people and pets can suffer similar health problems when subjected to second-hand smoke. The same carcinogenic molecules that cause cancer and other diseases in people affect animals the same way. So, if you smoke in your home or car, then your pet is essentially “smoking” too.
Second-hand smoke is not the only problem. Most people never consider “third-hand smoke.” This is the residue that remains in the smoker’s environment on furniture, rugs, curtains, fabric lampshades, clothing, human skin, animal fur and other surfaces. Both second- and third-hand smoke is referred to as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS). Research shows that ETS is dangerous to animals living with smokers. A research study conducted in 2007 at the University of Minnesota showed that cats that live with smokers have nicotine and other toxins in their urine.
Inhaling carcinogens is not the only health risk faced by pets that live in homes where people smoke. Poisoning is another potential risk for curious pets. Many family pets, but especially puppies and kittens, find packages of tobacco (or marijuana) cigarettes, e-cigarettes, nicotine gum and nicotine patches irresistible. Cigarette butts left in ashtrays or carelessly tossed on the ground are also a major problem. When ingested, tobacco products may cause nicotine poisoning, which can be fatal. If you must smoke, be sure to store all new and used smoking materials safely out of reach of pets and small children.
Second-hand smoke-related diseases in pets
A number of scientific papers have documented the significant health threats that are more common in pets exposed to second-hand smoke. In addition to the cancers listed below, animals can suffer excessive salivation, diarrhea, vomiting, asthma-like symptoms, respiratory problems, and cardiac abnormalities. All types of pets, like Buster, can be prone to skin, eye, and respiratory conditions that do not respond well to treatment, due to the on-going exposure to the irritant.
- Cats are prone to mouth cancers (squamous cell carcinoma), resulting from their self-grooming habits. When they lick their fur, their mucous membranes are exposed to cancer-causing toxins.
- Malignant lymphoma is another type of cancer that cats living in homes with smokers are twice as likely to have, as compared to cats living in a non-smoking home. This form of cancer is fatal to three out of four cats within 12 months of developing the disease.
- Dogs with long noses are more susceptible to cancer of the nose and sinus area because they have a greater surface area to be exposed to carcinogens. Most dogs with nasal cancer do not survive longer than one year.
- Dogs with short- and medium-length muzzles are more prone to lung cancer, because their short nasal passages are not as effective at accumulating the second-hand smoke carcinogens.
- Birds are at great risk of lung cancer, as well as pneumonia, because their respiratory systems are hypersensitive to any type of air pollutant. You should never EVER smoke around your pet bird.
How to minimize the risk to your pet’s health
It is possible not just to minimize but also to completely eliminate the risk to your pet’s health from second- and third-hand smoke. Just don’t allow them to be around people who are smoking. If you don’t smoke, then bravo! Good for you. If you do smoke, just stop! Okay, okay, we understand that in a perfect world this would be the ideal solution, but we recognize that quitting cold turkey can be a challenge. So, in order to mitigate risk, both for the health of pets and others living in the household, here are some tips:
- If your pet has unexplained or recurring health problems, tell your veterinarian that you are a smoker.
- Smoke in a designated area in which the smoke is physically separated from your home. And think of poor old Buster and his itchy red eyes … don’t smoke in your car.
- Do not assume that e-cigarettes are safer for pets (and people) than tobacco. They also contain a number of potentially harmful chemicals.
- After smoking, wash your hands before handling your pets. If your kitty likes to “head butt” your face, wash your face, too.
- Remember that third-hand smoke residue lingers on your hair and clothing. Minimize your animals’ contact with clothing that is “smokey.”
- Properly dispose of all cigarette butts and packaging as well as nicotine patches and gum. Store unused products in a safe place, out of reach of pets and children.
- Talk to a health care provider about how you can reduce or eliminate your dependency on cigarettes.