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Ask a Vet: Are E-Cigarettes Dangerous to Dogs?

E-cigarettes are not as benign as many people think. There are actual and potential risks.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  May 17th 2016


I have always enjoyed going out with friends. For much of my 20s, however, an evening on the town always came with a significant drawback: secondhand smoke. Spending an evening in a smoky bar left me feeling and smelling bad. My clothes would need to go straight into the laundry, and sometimes I found myself tired and in the shower at 2 a.m. To make matters worse, the health dangers of secondhand smoke were always on my mind. All of the smoking in public places was a deterrent to going out and having fun.

When I moved to Davis, California, for veterinary school in 1996, I received a very pleasant surprise. Smoking indoors in public places was illegal. My friends and I could go out without suffering the nasty consequences of secondhand smoke. Surprisingly, my friends who smoked also really liked the policy. They enjoyed the camaraderie that inevitably developed outside of the bar or restaurant where all of the smokers congregated. It was a winning situation for everyone.

Over time, more and more places banned indoor smoking. Bars and restaurants in all of California are now smoke-free. Many other states, and many nations, have followed suit.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta.

Dr. Eric Barchas and patient. (Photo by Liz Acosta)

Secondhand smoke, of course, is bad for dogs as well. It exacerbates heart and respiratory conditions. It also makes them smell like ashtrays. When I first started practicing veterinary medicine, many of my patients would reek of stale smoke. Over the years, there has been a strong and favorable trend in canine secondhand-smoke exposure. Ever fewer people are smoking indoors and exposing their dogs to the effects of their habit.

Over the last few years, a new trend also has caught on. Many people have switched to electronic cigarettes, or vapor pens, for their nicotine (and, in some cases, THC) fixes. E-cigarettes initially were billed as completely harmless alternatives to cigarettes. And, indeed, there is little doubt that they are less unhealthy than the original cancer sticks that they are supplanting. E-cigarette vapor is not loaded with all of the tar and nastiness that comes with tobacco smoke.

However, anything that seems too good to be true usually is. Research has shown that e-cigarettes are not completely benign. A chemical called diacetyl has been found in the juices that are converted to vapor in many e-cigarette recipes. Diacetyl has been linked to a horrifying condition called popcorn lung, which causes severe respiratory problems. I’m sure that over time, vaping will be linked to many other health concerns as well.

This raises a question: How dangerous is secondhand vapor from e-cigarettes? The answer is: I don’t know, precisely, but I’m sure there is some risk.

I do know that secondhand vapor is not as obnoxious as secondhand smoke. Recently, I was on a road trip with a friend who likes to vape. One of the parts on his e-cigarette failed, so he sought out a vape shop. I accompanied him to the store, which was filled with a thick cloud of vapor from the many vape fiends who were sucking relentlessly on e-cigarettes inside the shop. I found the vapor to be not at all offensive. But I’m a grown man who can decide whether to expose himself to such an environment. Would it have been cool to bring a dog into the store?

I don’t think so. Although I don’t know the precise risks of secondhand vapor, I’m sure there are some. I also know that dog lungs are more sensitive than human lungs. There is little doubt in my mind that significant vapor exposure could cause irritation to a dog’s respiratory tract, and possibly it might cause more serious damage.

Hold off on that high-five for now. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Hold off on that high-five for now. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Vapor pens pose another, clearer risk to dogs. As you no doubt are aware, some dogs will eat just about anything. I recently read an article about the growing number of children who are suffering from nicotine toxicity after consuming e-cigarette cartridges and e-juice. Although I have yet to see such a report about similar canine exposures, I have no doubt that they are on the rise.

Many e-cigarette juices are flavored to taste like candy, berries, or other items that are attractive to dogs. And, as I mentioned, some dogs will eat or chew on just about anything. It is easy to imagine a dog chewing on a vapor pen and winding up with a mouthful of nicotine- or THC-laden juice. The average e-cigarette cartridge contains an amount of nicotine that is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes. Such an exposure could lead to significant symptoms, including vomiting, disorientation, cardiac arrhythmias, collapse, and even death.

There is another risk as well. Many e-cigarettes come with detachable cartridges. If swallowed, such a cartridge might lodge in the intestines leading to an intestinal obstruction, which could be fatal without endoscopy or surgery.

I’m not a prude. I believe that adults should be able to do whatever they want to their bodies. If someone wants to engage in self-destructive behavior, that is nobody’s business but theirs.

However, if you vape, you should remember that your habit might pose risks to your dogs. Keep e-cigarettes in a safe place where your pet can’t get to them. If you vape, don’t do it in the same room as your dog. And if your dog consumes e-cigarette juice or part or all of an e-cigarette, get him to the vet immediately.