Why is Chocolate so Bad for Pets Anyway?

Pet care & safety

Dogs will sniff their way and devour cardboard and wrapping alike to get to chocolate of any flavor. Dark, milk, white, mocha…they seem to adore it all. You likely know by now that chocolate can be toxic to dogs, but does your knowledge stop here?

Why is it bad? How much is bad? Are any kinds safe? What exactly does eating chocolate do to dogs?

Chocolate toxicosis is a very common problem in dogs, but less common in cats. If your dog has eaten chocolate before and given you a scare, you are not alone. Chocolate is actually the most popular flavor for pet pharmacies to make custom dog medications scrumptious to the (typically non-discerning) canine palate!

What about chocolate is so bad for dogs?

The toxic ingredients in chocolate include caffeine and a chemical called theobromine. Dark chocolate and unsweetened baker’s chocolate are the most toxic but no chocolate is safe for pets.

In general, the amount of theobromine found in chocolate is small enough such that chocolate can be safely consumed by us as humans. Dogs, however, metabolize theobromine much more slowly than we do, and can easily consume enough chocolate to cause chocolate poisoning.

What about cats?

Dogs may star solo in the chocolate spotlight, but the toxic dose for cats is actually even lower than for dogs! The difference is that cats are less prone to eating chocolate since they are unable to taste sweetness. Many cats do enjoy the rich and creamy taste of chocolate desserts, such as chocolate cream pie with a tempting layer or whipped cream on top, so don’t assume that all felines will ignore all forms of the cocoa bean. When cats eat chocolate, it is much more likely to be an ingestion of toxic proportion.

Are all types of chocolate bad?

The amount of caffeine and theobromine in chocolate varies with the type of chocolate. The general rule is the more bitter the chocolate, the more caffeine and theobromine it is likely to contain. For example, unsweetened baking chocolate contains almost seven times more theobromine than milk chocolate. White chocolate is also potentially toxic but contains less caffeine and theobromine than even milk chocolate.

What happens when a dog eats enough chocolate to be dangerous?

Clinical signs of chocolate toxicosis can begin to occur within an hour of ingestion but they may take longer if the pet has recently eaten and has a full stomach. Caffeine and theobromine are both stimulants of the brain and heart. The clinical signs reflect this and can include hyperactivity, increased heart rate, muscle tremors, but even the most vigilant pet parents do not often pick up these signs.

The first and most commonly observed sign by owners is vomiting. Diarrhea, lethargy, panting, anxiousness, restlessness, and seizures may all soon follow. Complications associated with chocolate toxicosis can lead to death as quickly as 24 hours after ingestion! This is not an situation where you want to wait a few days and gauge how the pet does.

What to do

If chocolate ingestion is suspected, contact a veterinarian immediately! Be ready to provide some basic info: your pet’s weight, the type of chocolate eaten, when it was consumed, and an estimate of the amount of chocolate eaten.

Even if you aren’t exactly sure of amounts, we can calculate estimates and find out if your pet has ingested anywhere near a dangerous amount of toxic ingredients. That’s right! Vets can actually calculate the amount of caffeine and theobromine that was ingested. This way we can determine if your pet is at risk for a toxic reaction or if you can rest comfortably for the remainder of the evening knowing there is no real risk.

Should I induce vomiting at home?

As a general rule, inducing vomiting at home is not advised as it can cause your pet to aspirate, or vomit some of the stomach contents into his or her trachea or lungs, which can set up a brutal pneumonia. Your vet can bypass this risk by using a special tube called a nasogastric tube, which guides the stomach contents safely out the pet’s nose.

In addition, if ingestion occurred more than a few minutes ago, it may be too late to induce vomiting. Your veterinarian may administer activated charcoal to your pet. This is a liquid that is given by mouth and limits absorption of anything in the stomach and upper intestines.

What else does treatment involve?

Your veterinarian may likely recommend hospitalization for administration of intravenous fluids (to help flush the chemicals from your pet’s system) and for monitoring. Supportive and additional medications are also administered on a case by case basic.

For most uncomplicated cases of chocolate poisoning, pets will only have to stay in the hospital for a day or two. Severely affected pets may have to stay a bit longer.