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The Poison in Your Pantry: Canine Chocolate Toxicity

Posted 02.13.19 by Emme Patterson, DVM

It can be a very scary moment when you stroll into your kitchen find any of these scenarios:

Your dog feasting on the thoughtfully laid out bowl of individually wrapped heart-shaped dark chocolate candies that you placed on the counter in honor of Valentine’s Day. 

The new tub of cocoa powder that you bought at the grocery store last week is on the floor and has been licked clean by your mischievous hound.

The kids left the pantry door open (again!). One of your 4-legged family members has taken the opportunity to indulge in your supply of semi-sweet chocolate that you keep on hand for your best cookie recipe, and you aren’t even sure which dog is to blame!

Canine chocolate toxicity is such a common occurrence in American pet-owning households that it ranks 5th on ASPCA’s Top 10 Pet Toxins of 2017.  This veterinary emergency is most often encountered on holidays like Valentine’s, Christmas, Easter, and Halloween, when chocolate is more common in the household. So, what is the big deal with chocolate toxicity, and how can you be prepared if this happens in your own home?

Sadie and Chocolate

What makes chocolate so harmful to dogs?

Methylxanthines, theobromine and caffeine, are the plant-derived components of chocolate that pose a threat to our pets. Theobromine is the predominant toxin, and along with caffeine will act as a stimulant and diuretic. A dog’s body is unable to metabolize theobromine and caffeine like a human can, which makes them sensitive to the toxic effects of these compounds. Methylxanthines can also cross the female dog’s placenta and pass through milk, potentially harming unborn and nursing pups.

What happens if my dog eats chocolate?

The effects of these toxins can range from mild to life-threatening, and symptoms become evident within 6-12 hours of ingestion. These effects can persist for days or quickly become fatal. Initial signs include vomiting, bloating, and excessive water drinking. Restlessness, over-excitement, agitation and tremors may develop soon after. As the toxicity progresses, your dog may have rapid heart rates, arrythmias, extremely high temperatures, high blood pressure, rapid breathing/panting, and eventual seizures. In not-fatal cases, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and decreased appetite can result from pancreatitis caused by chocolate ingestion.

How much chocolate is too much?

Downtown memphis doggie daycare doggy

There is significant variation between dogs in their ability to tolerate chocolate ingestion, with some dogs being more sensitive than others. As a general rule, theobromine doses of 8-16 mg/lb can lead to mild signs, doses of 17-44 mg/lb can lead to moderate signs, doses of 45-55 mg/lb can lead to severe signs, and doses above 55 mg/lb are potentially fatal. The type of chocolate and size of the dog make a big difference in severity of the symptoms. For example, less than 1 ounce per pound of milk chocolate is potentially lethal, but less than 0.1 ounce per pound of Bakers chocolate is potentially lethal.

Chocolate types with increasing theobromine concentration:

Chocolate Toxicity Chart

What should you do if this happens to your dog?

It is never safe to induce vomiting in a dog that is already displaying symptoms of chocolate toxicity!

Contact your veterinarian, ASPCA Poison Control, or Pet Poison Helpline for help in determining if your pet ate a toxic amount of chocolate. Both ASPCA Poison Control and Pet Poison Helpline are available 24/7 for a small fee.

ASPCA Poison Control: (888) 426-4435

Pet Poison Helpline: (855)764-7661

It is helpful to have the answers to these 3 questions when making these calls:

  1. How much does your dog weigh?
  2. What type of chocolate did your dog eat?
  3. How many ounces of chocolate did your dog eat?

An ounce of prevention…..

  • During the holidays, make sure that chocolate is not on counters or tables where a dog can access it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way! So, don’t give them the benefit of the doubt here.
  • If you keep chocolate in your house, make sure it is sealed tight in a pet safe container.
  • Confine your pet to a bathroom, laundry room, or comfortable crate while hosting parties where cakes, brownies, etc will be on display!
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