While our pets should be avoiding candy in general, chocolate, in particular, can carry serious and sometimes deadly side effects if consumed in the right quantities.
What’s the Big Deal Anyway?
In 2016, chocolate ingestion was among the top 10 calls made to the Animal Poison Control Center.2 While much of the public may have the general understanding that chocolate can be harmful to our pets, very few have the comprehension of what makes it dangerous and what to do in the event that your dog eats it.
Dr. Laura Bahorich is an emergency veterinarian at Memphis Veterinary Specialists and PetMed Emergency Center. She has treated a large number of chocolate toxicities during her veterinary career and acknowledges that these numbers tend to increase during Halloween and other seasons occupied with candy.
“Chocolate ingestion is one of the most common toxicities encountered at any veterinary hospital, which is especially true at veterinary emergency centers,” Bahorich says. “The risk increases further around chocolate-fueled holidays such as Halloween, Christmas, and Easter.”
It can seem confusing. People eat chocolate all the time – sometimes in large quantities. What’s the big deal if your dog eats it?
The Big Deal: Methylxanthines
Methylxanthines are naturally occurring compounds that are found in certain plants. They have been used by humans for hundreds of years and many Americans consume it daily with their morning coffee. The forms that are present in most chocolates are caffeine and theobromine. Both work as stimulants and are harmful if ingested by our pets.
Caffeine: When we think of caffeine, we tend to think of its relation to beverages such as coffee, tea, and soda. Caffeine is also present in forms of chocolate that contain cocoa (dark, milk, and semi-sweet). Dogs and cats do not have the ability to metabolize caffeine in the way that humans do. While small amounts can cause mild gastrointestinal signs, large amounts can be fatal.
Theobromine: Theobromine works similar to caffeine in that it is a stimulant and a diuretic. It is also the most dangerous ingredient in chocolate when it comes to our dogs. While humans have the capability of metabolizing theobromine quickly, dogs and cats do not. Depending on the amount ingested, this stimulant can build up in our pet’s system, producing symptoms that can be mild to life-threatening. Because of the longer half-life produced, if ingested in the right quantities, dogs can exhibit the negative side effects of theobromine for days.
Knowing the amount of theobromine ingested allows your veterinarian to determine the severity of the toxicity and foresee the possible side effects. Our emergency team uses the following information to aid in treatment:
Not All Chocolate is Created Equal
It is important for pet owners to understand that different types of chocolate carry different amounts of theobromine. While white chocolate carries very little theobromine, bitter chocolates such as baker’s chocolate and cocoa powder have the potential to carry fatal levels. With so much variation in the amount and type, how can owners be sure if the dose ingested is harmful?
“If you are unsure if your dog ate enough chocolate to be harmful, you can call the ASPCA Poison Control hotline from home at 1-888-426-4435 for a small fee,” Dr. Bahorich says. “If provided with the dog’s weight, chocolate type, and the approximate amount of ingested chocolate, the ASPCA veterinary toxicologists can calculate a dog’s risk of side effects.”
The symptoms that your dog displays will vary depending on the amount of theobromine ingested. Mild symptoms range from lethargy and gastrointestinal upset to severe side effects that include hyperexcitability, racing heart, abnormal behavior, sedation, or seizures.
Treatment of chocolate ingestion depends on the size of the dog, the type of chocolate ingested, and the dog’s weight. If the amount ingested is below a toxic level, the owner may be able to simply monitor their pet at home. If the dose is determined to be toxic, however, an immediate treatment plan must be implemented by you and your veterinarian.
In the event that your dog does receive a toxic dose, Dr. Bahorich advises seeking treatment from a veterinarian as soon as possible. “It is a toxicity that we have a lot of experience in treating and with the right tools, the theobromine dose and predicted side effects can be determined,” she says.
If the ingestion of chocolate is recent, your veterinarian may induce vomiting to rid the stomach of any chocolate before it can be metabolized. A veterinary hospital can do this safely using a fast-acting drug known as apomorphine. If an owner is more than 2 hours away, the Animal Poison Control Center may be able to provide the owner with an oral dosage of hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting. It is never safe to induce vomiting in a dog that already displays side effects of chocolate toxicity. If your dog is already exhibiting any of the severe symptoms mentioned earlier, get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. If the first dose of hydrogen peroxide doesn’t induce vomiting, owners should not repeat the dosage. Repeated administration of hydrogen peroxide can cause mild to severe irritation of the lining of the esophagus and stomach.
Whether or not the stomach contents can be emptied, continued treatment may be recommended at a veterinary hospital. While there is no antidote for theobromine toxicity, symptoms can be appropriately managed with intravenous fluids and administration of activated charcoal. If necessary, sedation can be provided for the pet’s hyperexcitability. Most patients with chocolate toxicity carry a good prognosis with appropriate treatment.
It is important to mention that chocolate is also toxic to the feline members of our household. However, cats tend to be less likely to ingest things that they shouldn’t and it isn’t something we commonly see in the veterinary setting. If your cat should happen to eat chocolate, the same urgency should be taken in notifying your veterinarian. Treatment for chocolate toxicity in cats is similar to dogs, minus the mentioned medications used to induce vomiting.
Keep the Chocolate Out of Your Dog’s Reach
While we all enjoy in the partaking of eating delicious chocolate, being mindful of the placement and storage of your chocolate stash can help eliminate the stress of a possible emergency visit to your veterinarian. Owners should make sure that all candy is stored in closed containers that are completely out of our pet’s reach.
About Dr. Bahorich
Dr. Laura Bahorich is an emergency veterinarian at Memphis Veterinary Specialists and PetMed Emergency Center. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and has treated countless toxicities, with many successful outcomes. Dr. Bahorich’s professional interests include CPR / first aid, blood product and transfusion administration, and anaphylaxis. She has lectured extensively on these topics to the Memphis veterinary and non-veterinary communities. She and her husband enjoy living in Memphis with their son, Stanley, and two dogs, Beatrice and Satchmo.