Nicotine, Vaping, and My Cat

Elizabeth tackles a timely health topic

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Q. My 8-year-old domestic shorthair panther, Max, has lost his appetite and is losing weight. Kidney values/bloodwork are normal, so the vet is looking at environmental factors as a possible influence.My neighbor uses an electronic nicotine delivery device (e-cigarette) extensively, to the extent that I feel that it may be affecting my health. Is there any research involving vaping and cats, particularly the influence of neo-nicotinoids on appetite?

A. I am very sorry to hear of Max’s problems. Of course, there are many reasons that a cat might lose his appetite and weight, from dental disease to kidney disease (perhaps not supported by bloodwork in your case thus far) to various forms of gastrointestinal disease, so the most important thing is for you to continue to work with your veterinarian to rule out the more common and well understood causes of these signs in cats and to address any that may be identified.

Your question regarding the effects of e-cigarettes is certainly timely, as this relatively new technology has received significant attention from public health officials (and the media) with respect to potential negative health effects on the people that use them.

The short answer to your question is that there is very little published scientific data regarding the effects of the nicotine vapor that is produced by these products on the health of cats (and pets in general), but perhaps a review of the effects of nicotine on animals may be a reasonable place to start this discussion.

The physiologic effects of nicotine (whether inhaled or ingested) are caused by its binding (attaching) to receptors (called nicotinic receptors) in the central nervous system.

These receptors are important for the normal function of what is called the autonomic nervous system, which is that part of the nervous system that functions to control things like blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature regulation, and circadian rhythms (physiologic changes that are synchronized to daily light cycles).

The autonomic nervous system functions without us (or our pets) being aware of it, as opposed to the cognitive function (thinking, reasoning, remembering) of our nervous systems, which can also be affected by nicotine. Of course, nicotine is also highly addictive, and this addiction is likely caused, at least in part, by mechanisms that are distinct from its physiologic and cognitive effects on the nervous system.

Signs of nicotine toxicity in people may include high heart rate, high blood pressure, indigestion, nausea, dizziness, insomnia, nervousness, headache, diarrhea, and an unpleasant taste in the mouth; and those of these signs that we can document in animals are also commonly seen in animals with nicotine toxicity. Interestingly, there are also studies showing that nicotine exposure may change the behavior of animals.

While I do not know about the proximity and physical arrangement of your home with respect to that of your neighbor, it is likely that for your neighbor’s use of e-cigarettes to affect Max’s exposure to nicotine, this use would have to be extreme and prolonged. Interestingly, there are published studies investigating the use of feline hair nicotine concentrations as a potential assay for nicotine exposure in cats, but these are pilot studies that require follow- up work to validate their accuracy and potential application.

It is probably more likely that Max’s problems are due to other health issues, so please continue to work with your veterinarian to rule these out. Of course, doing whatever you can do to minimize any exposure to nicotine vapor (i.e. air purification) could not hurt in the interim, and I hope that this discussion has been helpful.

Best of luck, and please send us an update when you can.

All my best,