E-Cigs = E-mergency (Or, how your stash could cost you cash)

by Dr. Kate Lawton

With the legalization of marijuana on the horizon (and already legal in surrounding states), comes the increase in possible exposure to our pets, particularly dogs. The typical case involve a dog helping itself to an owner’s stash or tasty edibles, with clinical signs developing within 30-90 minutes and possibly lasting up to several days.

Common symptoms include incoordination, lethargy, dilated pupils, slow heart rate, and urinary incontinence. Since marijuana toxicity can mimic many other poisons, it is very important that the possibility of exposure be disclosed to the veterinarian. We are not obligated to notify the police and are bound by client-patient privacy. This is true for all recreational drugs. Please call your veterinarian immediately if your pet may have eaten marijuana.

If a pet is admitted within 30 minutes of eating marijuana, it may be possible to induce vomiting. However, this can be very dangerous once the patient becomes sedated from its effects. With appropriate supportive care, most pets will recover without any long term consequences; however, fatalities have been reported.

There have been a few anecdotal reports of using marijuana for medicinal purposes in our pets, especially those suffering from terminal disease or chronic pain from arthritis. However, there is simply not enough information at this time. Research is limited but growing. Perhaps down the road this will be a safe and legal option for some of our pets but at this time the risk is too high.

Another product with potential hazards to pets that is increasingly popular is electronic cigarettes, specifically the cartridge containing a liquid solution known as “e-liquid” or “e-juice.” This liquid contains very concentrated levels of nicotine (up to 36 mg/mL). Symptoms can be seen in pets at a dose of 0.5 mg per pound of body weight. For cats and small dogs, 20 mg of nicotine can be lethal. Even more dangerous are the refill bottles that contain up to 60 mL or more, enough to kill even a large dog.

Pets are exposed to e-juice by either chewing up the bottles or even by walking through a puddle of spilled liquid as it is also absorbed through the skin (a major concern for cats). Signs of toxicity begin within 15-30 minutes after exposure and include excessive drooling, vomiting, agitation, and panting and can quickly progress to tremors, disorientation, seizures, coma, and death.

Prompt and aggressive veterinary care is required to successfully manage poisoning from e-juice exposure. Because the e-juice is rapidly absorbed across the mucous membranes of the mouth, standard decontamination measures such as inducing vomiting are usually not helpful. Treatment includes managing convulsions and seizures, treating heart and blood pressure abnormalities, ensuring adequate respiration, and providing intravenous fluids to enhance nicotine elimination.

The prognosis for patients exposed to large amounts of nicotine can be quite grave depending on how quickly veterinary care is obtained, and even with aggressive veterinary care some patients will not survive.

Please be extremely careful with the handling and storage of your e-cigarettes and their refill cartridges, and be honest with your veterinarian about your pet’s exposure to these recreational substances. We need to be able to treat your pet as quickly and as appropriately as possible.