The Dangers of Chocolate
by Dr. S. Dawn Dinger, DVM
Autumn brings cool air, blowing leaves, apple cider and, of course, Halloween and plenty of tricks and treats. Most people know that the candy that we give out every year to trick-or-treaters should be kept away from pets, but how much do you really know about the problems that chocolate can cause?
As everyone who has one knows, dogs are famous for eating things they shouldn't. Most love food and their keen sense of smell allows them to find even the smallest amounts of food that are hidden away. These traits can prove dangerous however when there is chocolate within Fido's reach.
Chocolate is toxic because it contains “theobromine,” a stimulant similar to caffeine. People are able to metabolize this much better than dogs so it rarely, if ever, causes a problem in humans, but our canine friends are not so lucky. Cats are also not able to metabolize this substance well, but fortunately they rarely have much of a “sweet tooth” so we only occasionally see cats with this poisoning.
Symptoms of chocolate toxicity can include vomiting, diarrhea, increased drinking and urinating, hyper excitability, elevated body temperature, muscle tremors, heart arrhythmias, seizures, coma and death. It may take several hours after ingestion for clinical signs to develop and multiple days for signs to resolve even with treatment. Even amounts below toxic doses can lead to GI upset and all the fat and sugar in chocolate can lead to potentially severe problems like pancreatitis, so the safest thing is to avoid having chocolate around dogs at all.
The type of chocolate, the amount ingested and the size of the dog, all play a huge role in how toxic it is and what symptoms can be seen. In general, the stronger the chocolate the less that needs to be ingested to cause a problem. White and milk chocolate contain less theobromine per ounce than semi-sweet or baker's chocolate, so a dog would need to eat a lot less of baker's chocolate than milk chocolate to become poisoned. Some general guidelines are that about 1 ounce per pound of body weight of milk chocolate is a dangerous amount, while 0.3 ounce per pound of semi-sweet or 0.1 ounce per pound of baker's chocolate are enough to lead to big problems. So for example, a 10 pound dog could potentially die by ingesting as little as 1 ounce of baker's chocolate; 5 ounces of baker's chocolate could kill a 50 pound dog. Remember these are “lethal” doses; amounts a lot lower than this can still lead to severe problems and some dogs are naturally more sensitive to the effects than others.
So what do you do if your dog ingests chocolate? First, don't panic. Try and determine about how much your dog ate and the type of chocolate and then give us a call (or a veterinary emergency room if we are not available). Depending on this information and the size and overall health of your dog, it may be recommended to bring your dog in for evaluation, to induce vomiting at home or even just to monitor your pet for problems. If you do need to have your pet seen, remember that the sooner you can have them evaluated the better.
There is no antidote for chocolate ingestion. Treatment involves limiting absorption by inducing vomiting and giving absorbents and cathartics; helping to flush the system and prevent reabsorption by giving IV fluids; and aggressively treating any signs that develop with things like sedation, oxygen, medications to control heart rate and arrhythmias, and seizure control. Fortunately the prognosis for chocolate toxicity is usually good with rapid and aggressive care.
So this Halloween make certain to stay safe and keep all the goodies well out of reach of your pets! Also, as an added tip, avoid using Cocoa Shell Mulch in your garden and flower beds next year – dogs love the taste and ingestion of this can lead to chocolate toxicity too!
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Dr. S. Dawn Dinger, DVM