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Fatal to Some Pets and Risky for Others — Do You Still Do This?

passive smoking effects on dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • A growing body of evidence shows that pets are at even greater risk from passive smoke than people are
  • Second and third-hand smoke tends to be more dangerous for cats than dogs, and passive smoke can be fatal to pet birds
  • Smokers can reduce their pet’s exposure to carcinogens slightly by smoking outside the house, cutting back on the amount they smoke and washing their hands and face and changing clothes before handling their pet
  • It’s important to note that pets can also be harmed by ingesting any portion of a cigarette, e-cigarette, cigar or stop-smoking aid, or by drinking water that has been contaminated by a cigarette butt

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to quit smoking, congratulations! And if you're also a pet parent, you have an extra incentive to put down those cigarettes — the health of your animal companion.

"Smoking's not only harmful to people; it's harmful to pets, too," says Food and Drug Administration (FDA) veterinarian Dr. Carmela Stamper. "If 58 million nonsmoking adults and children are exposed to tobacco smoke, imagine how many pets are exposed at the same time."1

Studies show pets are at greater risk from passive smoking than even humans are, because furry family members spend more time at home and on the floor, where carcinogenic particles tend to linger. And there's also the problem of third-hand smoke particles, which are thought to be more hazardous than secondhand smoke. Third-hand smoke is the residue that remains in the smoker's environment on furniture, rugs, curtains, fabric lampshades, clothing, human skin, animal fur and other surfaces.

"Like children, dogs and cats spend a lot of time on or near the floor, where tobacco smoke residue concentrates in house dust, carpets and rugs. Then, it gets on their fur," Stamper explains. "Dogs, cats and children not only breathe these harmful substances in, but pets can also ingest them by licking their owner's hair, skin, and clothes." 

Living With a Smoker Puts Pets at Increased Risk of Serious Disease

Recent research at the University of Glasgow in Scotland has clearly demonstrated a direct link between pets living with smokers and a higher risk of serious health problems including cancer, cell damage and overweight/obesity.

"Our findings show that exposure to smoke in the home is having a direct impact on pets," says study leader Clare Knottenbelt. "It risks ongoing cell damage, increasing weight gain after castration and has previously been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers."2

Previous study results have demonstrated that dogs take in significant amounts of smoke when living in a smoking household. The Glasgow study involved cats, and shows they are even more affected than dogs, very possibly due to their grooming habits, which cause them to ingest smoke residue clinging to their fur.

As an incidental finding, the researchers discovered that dogs living with owners who smoke appear to gain more weight after being spayed or neutered than dogs living with nonsmokers. The researchers also examined the testicles of just-neutered male dogs living in smoking households and found that a gene that acts as a marker for cell damage was higher in those dogs than dogs living with nonsmokers. Other studies have shown this same gene is altered in dogs with certain kinds of cancer.

The Dangers of Passive Smoke for Dogs

Past studies have concluded that dogs living in smoking households are more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases like asthma and bronchitis, and also lung cancer, than dogs living with nonsmokers.

For example, a Colorado State University study found a higher incidence of nasal tumors and cancer of the sinus in dogs living in homes with smokers, compared to those living in a smoke-free environment.3 The nasal/sinus tumors were specifically found in long-nosed breeds such as retrievers and German Shepherds. Sadly, nasal cancer is usually fatal within a year of diagnosis.

The same CSU study showed higher lung cancer rates in short- to medium-nosed dogs, such as Boxers and Bulldogs, who live with smokers. Their shorter muzzles mean more cancer-causing particles reach their lungs. Another study published in the early 1990s found that dogs in smoking households have a 60 percent greater risk of lung cancer.4

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Cats Living With Smokers Are Also at High Risk

Daily grooming exposes a cat's delicate oral tissues to hazardous amounts of cancer-causing substances. Even minimal amounts of exposure to passive smoke can damage your kitty's health.

A Tufts University study linked secondhand smoke to cancer in cats.5 The study found that cats living with smokers are more than twice as likely to develop malignant lymphoma, which is the most common feline cancer, as those in smoke-free homes. And cats with five or more years of second- and third-hand smoke exposure had a three times higher risk.

A University of Minnesota study showed that cats who live with smokers have nicotine and other toxins in their urine.6 A Tufts University study linked secondhand smoke to oral cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) in cats.7 Kitties living with more than one smoker and those exposed to passive smoke for longer than five years had even higher rates of this cancer.

Cigarette Smoke Is Also Extremely Toxic to Birds

Passive smoke can be fatal to pet birds. I don't recommend you smoke around your bird or allow anyone else to, but if you are a smoker, you should not smoke in the home your bird lives in and disinfect yourself before handling your bird. Wash your hands, rinse out your mouth and change your clothes. I strongly urge people who smoke to avoid contact with birds, period.

Smoking Outdoors and Cutting Back May Be Helpful, but Quitting Is Ideal

The Glasgow study results suggest that even with outdoor access, kitties living in smoking environments take in significant amounts of smoke. And smoking away from household pets doesn't eliminate their exposure — it only reduces the amount of smoke they take into their bodies.

Smokers who keep the total number of tobacco products smoked in the home under 10 per day have cats with significantly less nicotine in their fur, but still more than cats living in nonsmoking environments.

"Whilst you can reduce the amount of smoke your pet is exposed to by smoking outdoors and by reducing the number of tobacco products smoked by the members of the household," Knottenbelt says, "stopping smoking completely is the best option for your pet's future health and wellbeing."

More Ways Your Pet Can Be Harmed by Smoking Products

There are other ways your dog, cat or other pet can be poisoned by tobacco products, including:

Nicotine is highly toxic to pets, and eating a cigarette or e-cig, chewing tobacco, or just a portion of a cigar can be fatal. Signs of nicotine poisoning include drooling, constricted pupils, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, seizures and cardiac abnormalities. If you think your pet has ingested a nicotine product, call the Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 immediately and/or get him to a vet or emergency clinic right away.