Chocolate Toxicity (why can't dogs eat chocolate?)

Brown dog with block of chocolate

Who doesn't love chocolate? A slice of chocolate birthday cake, a small chocolate bar as a treat, and let's not forget the countdown to Easter where we have an excuse to overindulge! But for our dogs even the smallest piece can lead to chocolate poisoning, causing serious health issues and in some cases prove fatal. With chocolate being the most common cause of poisoning in dogs, it's best to know the signs and symptoms, and what to do should they find a piece to munch on. 

What makes chocolate poisonous to pets?

The main ingredient of chocolate is cocoa. The cocoa bean contains two methylxanthines - naturally occurring stimulants found in foodstuffs. These two toxic drugs are theobromine and caffeine, which are especially toxic to dogs, but also for cats and other animals.

Theobromine is toxic to dogs as they are unable to metabolise the drug as quickly as us humans can. It is because of this slow metabolization that theobromine builds up to a level that is toxic to their system, resulting in chocolate toxicity. Caffeine, while also toxic to dogs is present in much smaller concentrations.

Is all chocolate poisonous?

While you shouldn't give your pets any type of chocolate, some chocolate is more toxic than others. It is the concentration level of theobromine in chocolate that determines how toxic it is. Concentration levels varies among the different types of chocolate, but an easy way to tell how poisonous it is is by how dark it is - the darker the chocolate the higher the level of theobromine it will contain.

In order of toxicity level, starting from the most toxic is:

  • Cocoa powder
  • Baking/cooking chocolate
  • Dark chocolate
  • Milk chocolate
  • White chocolate

But remember, any chocolate eaten in a large enough amount can cause serious health issues.

Dark, milk and white chocolateThe darker the chocolate the more toxic it is to dogs

How much chocolate is too much?

While there are some people who say their dog has eaten chocolate and experienced no adverse effects, like any other medication or potential toxin their reaction is dependent on a number of factors. The determining factors is the type of chocolate ingested, amount ingested and weight of your pet. 

The darker chocolate, like cooking chocolate and dark chocolate, are by far the most toxic with as little as 5-10 grams causing a potentially severe reaction or even death in a small dog. Even baked goods made with cocoa powder or cocoa nibs can be very hazardous.

White chocolate contains little to no theobromine or caffeine so the chance of a toxic effect is much lower. However, the cocoa butter, sugar, butter and milk solids can still be an issue and cause symptoms like an upset stomach or pancreatitis. 

Generally, a larger dog can consume more chocolate than a smaller dog before suffering from any symptoms of poisoning.

If you suspect your pooch as eaten chocolate, no matter how small the amount, see your vet immediately.

White dog wearing bunny ears with Easter eggsTake care during Easter that chocolate eggs are stored away from your pooch 

What are the symptoms of chocolate toxicity?

If your dog has ingested a potentially toxic amount, they will begin to show signs and symptoms of poisoning between four to 24 hours after eating the chocolate.

Early signs are mild and include:

  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Excessive urination
  • Increased thirst

Signs can progress to include:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hyperthermia
  • Pancreatitis

The more severe signs include:

  • Depression
  • Heart arrhythmias and heart failure 
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Coma

If treatment isn't sought, symptoms of chocolate toxicity can quickly progress. While chocolate can make dogs severely ill, the good news is it is rarely fatal. However, young dogs, senior dogs and dog with pre-exisiting conditions, particularly heart conditions, are more at risk for poisoning than others.

What to do if your pet eats chocolate

If you catch your pooch in the act of eating chocolate, remove any other available chocolate from their reach and if possible try to remove it from their mouth, However, it is more common to find empty wrappers or crumbs instead of catching your dog in the act.

If you believe, or even suspect your pet has ingested chocolate never try to induce vomiting yourself. Instead try to determine what kind and how much chocolate they ate, then call your vet. With this information they will be able to advise you on what to do or if a toxic amount has been ingested and you need to go to the clinic.

How do vets treat chocolate toxicity in dogs?

When you arrive, your vet will calculate the toxicity level based on your dog's weight, the type of chocolate and how much they have ingested in order to best treat the poisoning. If possible, it is always best to bring the chocolate wrapper with you as this will help in determining the toxicity level. As there is no antidote to theobromine, treatment involves supportive care. This includes:

  • Inducing vomiting to remove the toxin
  • IV fluids to assist in flushing remaining toxins and for hydration
  • Administering activated charcoal to stop the toxin from being further absorbed into the body
  • Medication to regulate heart rate
  • Medication to control seizures
  • Placing a urinary catheter to prevent secondary reabsorption through the bladder 

Is there chocolate treats for dogs?

While our pooches can't have chocolate, this doesn't mean they have to miss out. There are many doggy treats that might look like they contain chocolate, but in fact use a dog friendly chocolate substitute called carob. Often confused with chocolate because it looks so much alike, carob has a naturally sweet flavour similar to chocolate. It doesn't contain any theobromine or caffeine, instead it has a number of healthy nutrients in it and is a great source of fibre for dogs. There are a lot of dog treat recipes featuring carob if you feel like whipping up a delicious treat for your pooch.

 

 

If your pet has eaten chocolate or you suspect they have done, contact your local vet immediately or your closest Animal Emergency Service hospital.

For more information about what is toxic to pets, visit our Pets and Poisons Guide.

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