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Chocolate Poisoning in Dogs: Signs & Symptoms

While all candy should be avoided by our pets, chocolate in particular can have serious and sometimes fatal side effects if consumed in large amounts. Our Springfield vets explain it all here.

What’s the Big Deal Anyway?

Chocolate ingestion was one of the top ten calls to the Animal Poison Control Center in 2016. While most people are aware that chocolate can be harmful to our pets, few are aware of what makes it so dangerous and what to do if your dog eats it.

Chocolate ingestion is one of the most common toxicities encountered at any veterinary hospital, which is especially true at veterinary emergency centers. 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?

Methylxanthines

Methylxanthines are natural compounds that can be found in a variety of plants. Humans have been using them for hundreds of years, and many Americans drink them every morning with their coffee. Caffeine and theobromine are the two types of caffeine found in most chocolates. Both act as stimulants and can be harmful to our pets if consumed.

Caffeine

When we think of caffeine, we usually associate it with beverages like coffee, tea, and soda. Caffeine can also be found in chocolate made with cocoa (dark, milk, and semi-sweet). Caffeine is not metabolized in dogs and cats in the same way that it is in humans. Small doses can cause mild gastrointestinal symptoms, but large doses can be fatal.

Theobromine

Theobromine is a stimulant and diuretic that works similarly to caffeine. When it comes to our dogs, it's also the most dangerous ingredient in chocolate. Dogs and cats do not have the ability to quickly metabolize theobromine as humans do. This stimulant can build up in our pet's system depending on the amount ingested, causing symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening. Because of the longer half-life produced, dogs can experience theobromine's negative side effects for days if ingested in the right amounts.

Knowing the amount of theobromine ingested allows your veterinarian to determine the severity of the toxicity and foresee the possible side effects. 

Not All Chocolate is Created Equal

It's critical for pet owners to realize that different types of chocolate contain varying amounts of theobromine. While white chocolate contains very little theobromine, bitter chocolates like baker's chocolate and cocoa powder can contain lethal amounts. How can owners be sure if the dose ingested is harmful when there is so much variation in the amount and type?

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. 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.

Symptoms

The symptoms that your dog exhibits will vary depending on how much theobromine he has consumed. Mild side effects include lethargy and gastrointestinal upset, as well as hyperexcitability, racing heart, abnormal behavior, sedation, and seizures.

Treatment

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 seek 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.

If you recently ate chocolate, your veterinarian may induce vomiting to get the chocolate out of your stomach before it can be metabolized. A fast-acting drug known as apomorphine can be used safely in a veterinary hospital to accomplish this. The Animal Poison Control Center may be able to provide an oral dose of hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting if the owner is more than 2 hours away. Inducing vomiting in a dog who is already showing signs of chocolate toxicity is never a good idea. Get your dog to a veterinarian as soon as possible if he or she is showing any of the severe symptoms listed above. Owners should not repeat the dosage if the first dose of hydrogen peroxide does not cause vomiting. The use of hydrogen peroxide on a regular basis can cause mild to severe irritation of the esophageal and stomach linings.

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 the 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 eating delicious chocolate, being mindful of where you keep it and how you store it can help you avoid the stress of a potential emergency visit to your veterinarian. All candy should be kept in closed containers that are out of reach of our pets.

If you're concerned that your dog has eaten chocolate, contact our animal hospital in Springfield right away and bring your dog straight over.

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Greenbrier-Springfield Animal Hospital is accepting new patients! Our experienced vets are passionate about the health of Springfield companion animals. Get in touch today to book your pet's first appointment.

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