Why chocolate is an unsavoury treat for your dog or cat
Chocolate is poisonous to dogs, and can also affect cats, but why? And, if they eat it, how much is likely to make them ill? Chocolate is made from cocoa solids and caffeine. Cocoa solids come from roasting the seeds from the cocoa plant (Theobroma cacao). The seeds contain theobromine, which is toxic. Cocoa solids usually account for 20 to 70% of chocolate and is also present in cocoa powder, cocoa beans, cocoa shell mulches, amongst other things. We often speak to owners whose pet has eaten their way into wrapped presents or broken into a cupboard to reach the chocolate.
Symptoms of chocolate poisoning
- Vomiting, sometimes with blood present
- Tender abdomen: generally looking uncomfortable, not comfortable when lying down, stretching repeatedly or moving oddly, whining, crying when their abdomen is touched
- Restlessness, excitability and hyperactivity
- Drinking more
- Uncoordinated or wobbly when standing up and walking
- A change in their heart rate (up or down)
In severe cases, clinical signs can include:
- Increased respiratory rate
- Muscle tremors
- Urinary incontinence, occasionally with blood in the urine
- Convulsions or seizures
Cause of chocolate poisoning
Chocolate contains theobromine. Whilst humans metabolise it quickly, dogs absorb and metabolise it much slower, which is why it can build up to a toxic level. It can take up to 10 hours to be fully absorbed in dogs. Onset of clinical signs is generally within 24 hours; it is usually within 4 hours but can take up to 72 hours. Eating anything that contains cocoa can cause symptoms in dogs; the higher the proportion of cocoa, the greater the risk. Chocolate also contains fat, sugar and caffeine. Dark chocolate contains the highest amount of cocoa, while white chocolate contains the least.
Susceptibility to chocolate toxicity also varies between individual dogs. It can be hard to know which dogs may be badly affected so we recommend that all dogs are assessed immediately by either a FirstVet vet or by your own vet. The approximate amount of theobromine that is fatal for dogs is between 100-250mg per kg of the dog’s body weight. So, for example, if your dog weighs 10kg, eating 60-70g of dark or cooking chocolate could be fatal. White chocolate contains very little theobromine, therefore toxicity is unlikely. Instead, your dog may develop an intestinal upset, such as vomiting and diarrhoea, or pancreatitis. Milk chocolate toxicity lies on the scale between dark and white chocolate.
What you can do to help your dog?
- Without meaning to sound too obvious, the best advice we can give you is not to feed your dog chocolate. However, we all know that some dogs can not resist helping themselves to a sweet treat or raiding a box of chocolates. Some dogs associate the smell of something or the flavour of something that they have had before. So, if they are not used to eating chocolate as a treat, some dogs will not help themselves either.
- If you are baking, make sure that the cocoa is kept out of the way. Do not leave a chocolate cake to cool within the reach of naughty paws, as they are likely to help themselves! White chocolate should also be avoided.
- If you have green fingers, we would recommend avoiding using cocoa shell mulches in your garden. If you do, ensure that the whole area is securely fenced off.
- If your dog has eaten anything containing cocoa, we recommend that you contact your vet or one of our FirstVet vets immediately. Keep as much of the wrapper as possible, or google the ingredients if your dog has eaten the wrapping as well.
- You may already know how much your dog weighs. If not, try to find out; check your vaccination card as it might be written on there. If you have a set of scales at home, you can hold you dog in your arms and weigh you both together, then put your dog down, weigh yourself again and do the subtraction.
- Even if your dog is not showing any symptoms, since clinical signs can be delayed for several hours. We would recommend that you contact your vet or one of our FirstVet vets without delay for advice.
Treatment of chocolate poisoning
Dogs that require treatment usually have the best chance of a full recovery if they receive prompt intervention and treatment. The prognosis for a dog is usually good if your vet induces vomiting to empty the stomach contents straight away. If your dog has eaten chocolate, treatment will depend on the amount they have eaten, the type of chocolate (the cocoa content) and what clinical signs they are showing.
If they are not showing signs, they have only eaten a small amount (a tiny amount of plain chocolate) or they have eaten it within the last 2 hours, giving them medication to make them vomit, and then gastric toxin absorbents to absorb any theobromine left in the intestinal tract, is often sufficient.
However if they have eaten a large amount of chocolate, plain chocolate, cocoa powder or cocoa nibs, treatment usually includes making them vomit, placing them on intravenous fluids (a drip) and feeding gastric toxin absorbents. Your vet might recommend a blood test to check liver and kidney function, and your dog may require medication to control their heart rate, blood pressure and prevent seizures.
More information on chocolate poisoning is available from the PDSA.
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