Uh oh! Is that chocolate on your pet’s breath? Is that caramel in their fur? If so, you need to call Angels Camp or Mother Lode Veterinary Hospital. Chocolate ingestion in pets can cause dangerous cardiac and nervous system abnormalities, with temporary or permanent consequences, including death. Protect your pet from this dark threat by learning more about chocolate toxicity in dogs and cats.
What’s so bad about chocolate in pets?
When we eat chocolate, we gain momentary happiness, weight, a decent blood sugar spike, and guilt. When dogs and cats feast on this sweet, something much darker happens. Two toxic chemicals known as methylxanthines—specifically, theobromine and caffeine—are absorbed through the small intestine, enter the bloodstream, and bind to heart muscle, and the central nervous system (i.e., nervous tissue, brain, spinal cord).
While we may become anxious or restless after too much caffeine, pets are much more sensitive to methylxanthines, and commonly experience pronounced agitation, high heart rate, dangerous arrhythmias, muscle tremors, seizure, coma, and sometimes, death.
Are some chocolates worse than others for pets?
Toxicity varies greatly between chocolate products, which makes contacting your veterinarian critical for ensuring your pet’s health and safety. Common chocolates from most to least toxic include:
- Cocoa powder — Approximately 800 mg methylxanthines per ounce
- Unsweetened (i.e., baking) chocolate — 450 mg per ounce
- Semi-sweet chocolate — 150 to 160 mg per ounce
- Sweet dark chocolate — 150 to 160 mg per ounce
- Milk chocolate — 64 mg per ounce
- White chocolate — Considered a “negligible” source
These numbers are for comparison purposes only. The lethal dose for chocolate toxicity in pets is approximately 100 to 200 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, although individual sensitivity can vary greatly. If you know or suspect your pet has eaten chocolate, immediately call Angels Camp or Mother Lode Veterinary Hospital or the ASPCA Poison Control Center. Do not attempt at-home treatment without veterinary guidance.
When are pets at greatest risk for chocolate toxicosis?
Chocolate is ubiquitous year-round, but some common scenarios and holiday celebrations that may involve chocolate-dipped disasters include:
- Holidays (e.g., Halloween, Thanksgiving) and get-togethers
- Children’s lunch boxes and backpacks
- The not-so-well-hidden candy stash
- Unattended purses
- Well-meaning friends and family
How will I know my pet is sick?
Chocolate toxicosis does not cause an immediate visible reaction. Signs typically appear 6 to 12 hours after ingestion, and can vary, based on chocolate type and quantity consumed. Common early signs can include:
- Increased urination
- Increased heart rate
Pets with high methylxanthine levels in their bloodstream will show cardiotoxic or neurotoxic signs, including:
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Cyanosis (i.e., blue gums)
How is chocolate toxicosis treated in pets?
Patient stabilization is the initial goal in chocolate ingestion treatment. Your pet’s veterinarian may use anti-seizure, anti-nausea, or anti-arrhythmic intravenous drugs, depending on your pet’s condition.
Once signs are controlled, treatment focuses on reducing the chocolate in your pet’s system. If you know your pet ingested the chocolate less than an hour after arrival, your veterinarian may induce emesis (i.e., vomiting). After the first hour, they may give your pet activated charcoal, to absorb any chocolate in the gastrointestinal tract, or use gastric lavage (i.e., stomach flush). A urinary catheter may be placed. Decontamination is a necessary step, as methylxanthines can recirculate through the liver and be reabsorbed through the bladder, resulting in repeated insult to the body, permanent injury, or death.
After stabilization and decontamination, pets are hospitalized for continued care and monitoring.
Does chocolate pose other dangers for pets?
As if toxicity weren’t enough, chocolate ingestion poses additional risks to pets, including:
- Gastrointestinal foreign body — Dogs may consume packaging or wrappers in their quest to eat rapidly, while cats may mistake foil or cellophane wrapping for toys, and ingest the pieces. Wrappers can form a blockage anywhere along the gastrointestinal tract, and require surgical removal.
- Xylitol toxicity — Sugar-free chocolate or chocolate-flavored snack foods may contain this harmful sweetener, which causes a dangerous drop in blood sugar, and can lead to liver damage or failure.
- Macadamia nuts — Chocolate-dipped nuts, nut clusters, or nut fillings may contain macadamia nuts, which cause nerve and muscle dysfunction. All nuts should be avoided, because they can trigger pancreatitis.
- Raisins — Pets who consume chocolate-covered raisins, or candies containing raisin paste, may be at risk for acute kidney failure.
How do I prevent chocolate toxicosis in my pet?
Protecting your pet from chocolate ingestion begins with awareness and diligent observation:
- Store baking supplies in an overhead cabinet—never leave them sitting out on the counter.
- Keep pets out of the kitchen while you are baking, or during parties.
- Be vigilant about any chocolate candy in your home, especially around the holidays. Store all candy in a closed container, out of your pet’s reach.
- Advise guests not to feed your pet.
- Hang all purses, backpacks, and bags on hooks, to discourage curious noses and paws.
If you know or suspect your pet has eaten chocolate, candy, or any other toxic ingredient, immediately contact Angels Camp or Mother Lode Veterinary Hospital, or call the ASPCA Poison Control Center, if you need after-hours care. Never induce vomiting in your pet without veterinary approval. For additional questions about pet toxins, or if you have an emergency, contact Angels Camp or Mother Lode Veterinary Hospital.