Pet owning smokers? More reasons to give up

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Published 16/01/2016 | 00:00

Pete Wedderburn
Pete Wedderburn
Pets breathe in and lick toxic chemicals from smoke

We're only two weeks into the New Year, yet studies show that nearly half of those brave individuals who made New Year Resolutions will already have broken them.

And by the end of 2016, only around 14% will have kept their promises for self improvement. This shouldn't stop people trying: people who set specific goals like this are ten times more likely to achieve them than people who vaguely "try to do better".

The most common resolutions this year included losing weight, getting fitter, and eating more healthily. There's a long list of others, including a better work-life balance and drinking less alcohol, but the one that caught my eye this week was an old classic: "give up smoking". This resolution is made by 5% of those questioned, but given that only around 20% of the Irish population smoke cigarettes, this means that around one in four smokers try to stop at New Year. This is not an easy task: nicotine is highly addictive. Here's an extra incentive for smokers trying to quit: the effect of passive smoking on pets.

The impact of smoking on human health is well known. It's the leading cause of preventable death in Ireland with 5,500 smokers dying each year from tobacco related diseases. Smoking related deaths are mainly due to cancers, chronic respiratory disease and heart failure. Cigarettes contain over 4000 toxic chemicals, many of which are proven to cause cancer. Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body, causing many different illnesses and diseases. If you are a long-term smoker, on average, your life expectancy is about 10 years less than a non-smoker. The younger you are when you start smoking, the more likely you are to smoke for longer and to die early from smoking.

These health issues are serious for people who smoke, but at least they are in control of their own destiny to the extent that they are only harming themselves. The more worrying issue is the fact that others may be harmed by passive smoking, which is defined as the involuntary inhaling of smoke from other people's cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. The effect of passive smoking on humans has been discussed in detail in recent years, leading to the ban on smoking in pubs, and the recent law against smoking in cars with children.

We've known for a long time that pets can also suffer from the ill effects of passive smoking, but recent research has shown that the effects are even more severe that we used to think. There are three good reasons why pets are even more prone to problems than human adults or children.

First, pets spend more time than humans in the home. Adults go out for the day (e.g. to work), and children go to school. In contrast, most pets stay at home all day, and this means that they spend more time in contact with smoking chemicals.

Second, pets are closer to the surfaces of carpets and furniture, and these tend to be coated with the toxic agents contained in smoke. Pets' bodies have direct contact with these toxins, and pets are also more likely to inhale them because they are breathing in air that passes directly over these surfaces before going into their lungs.

Third, cats especially are prone to grooming themselves by licking their own coat. If they live in a smoker's house, this means that they will swallow any toxic smoking chemicals that have landed on their bodies.

The increased risk to pets applies even if cats spend time outdoors. And if smokers choose to smoke outside, while this reduces the risk to pets, they are still more likely to develop smoke-related problems compared to pets that live with non-smokers.

There are three specific problems caused to pets by the chemicals in smoke.

First, the obvious increased risk of cancer. Dogs are more likely to get nasal and lung cancer, and cats are more likely to suffer from mouth cancer and lymphoma (a cancer of the white blood cells). Cats living in homes where someone smokes a pack of cigarettes or more each day are three times more likely to develop malignant lymphoma than cats living with non-smokers. Cats exposed to smoke from one to 19 cigarettes a day are four times more likely to be diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, which is the most common and aggressive type of oral cancer in cats.

Second, the toxic chemicals in smoke cause general cell damage. Researchers examined the testicles of male dogs after they had been castrated and they found that a gene that acts as a marker of cell damage was higher in dogs living in smoking homes than those that did not. Similar types of cell damage is likely to be found in throughout the body, and this leads to inflammatory diseases like bronchitis and itchy skin. When people give up smoking, they often see a visible difference in the health of their pet (e.g. a coughing dog may be cured)

Third, for reasons that are not clear, studies have shown that pets in smokers' homes are more likely to be obese. So if you want to try a novel way to help your pet slim down, give up smoking.

In a recent survey, one-in-three pet-owning smokers said that information about the dangers of second hand smoke to their pets motivated them to try to quit smoking. So any smokers out there - you have the information, and it's now over to you!

Wexford People

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