Golden retriever with cigarette.
Fido may be a new motivator for people to kick the habit, as a study now shows that more than a quarter of all pet owners who smoke would try to quit if they knew smoking harmed their cat, bird or dog.
Second-hand tobacco smoke can be as dangerous for pets as it is for the non-smoking human partners of smokers. Exposure to second-hand smoke has been associated with allergies in dogs; eye and skin diseases in birds; lymph gland cancer in cats; nasal and lung cancers in dogs; oral cancer in cats; and respiratory problems in cats and dogs, said researcher Sharon Milberger of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
But few smokers realize what impact their habit is having on the health of their pets, she said.
The impact of smoking on pets adds another avenue for reaching people about quitting smoking, from the point of view of health advocates, Milberger said. "Now if someone takes the pet to the vet, the vet can ask about smoking behavior of the owners. It's another opportunity to hit people from different angles on the topic of smoking," she said.
To see how strong the link might be, Milberger and her colleagues set up an online survey for pet owners (cats, dogs, birds) in southeastern Michigan, quizzing them about their and their partners' smoking behaviors, and what they knew about the effects of second hand smoke on their pets.
In all, 3,293 adults responded — about 20 percent were smokers and more than one in four lived with at least one smoker. The average number of cigarettes smoked was 13.5 a day, with around half of those smoked in the home.
Some 28 percent said that knowing that smoking was bad for their pets' health would spur them to give it up. And almost one in 10 (8.7 percent) said this would prompt them to ask their partners to quit, while around one in seven (14 percent) said they would tell their partner to smoke outdoors.
These figures were even higher among non-smokers, more than 16 percent of whom said they would ask their partner to quit, while 24 percent said they would tell their partner to smoke outdoors.
Around 40 percent smokers and 25 percent non-smokers living with smokers said they would be interested in receiving information on the effects of smoking and how to give up.
"We can't distill whether or not pet owners care more about their pets' health than their own," Milberger told LiveScience. "We just know that they do care about their pets' health. We're trying to reach people in different ways since the health effects of smoking on humans is well known. What is less well known is the health effects on pets."
The research was conducted with support from Pet Supplies "Plus," a national pet product retail chain, as well as the Michigan Humane Society and a grant from the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute. Participants were notified of the survey via fliers distributed in PSP stores and MHS locations, as well as through advertising and newsletters. The first 1,200 people who participated received $5 PSP gift cards.
Public health campaigns targeting smokers would do well to focus on the detrimental impact of second-hand tobacco smoke on pets, Milberger and her colleagues wrote recently in an online edition of the journal Tobacco Control. U.S. pet owners are clearly a very devoted bunch, they say, which such campaigns could tap into.
Almost two thirds of U.S. households have a pet, and their combined spending power on pet supplies and over-the-counter medicines was estimated to be in the region of more than $10 billion last year.
And a survey carried out by the American Animal Hospital Association in 2008 showed that more than half of the respondents said that if they were stranded on a desert island, they would prefer the company of their pet to that of another person.
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