Pete the Vet: Your Dog Could Die From Chocolate Poisoning
Easter eggs used to be a very targeted seasonal treat: they hit stores the week before Easter, we bought them for our kids on Easter weekend, and they were eaten on Easter Sunday. It’s different now: Easter eggs are on sale from January, and they’re stacked up, on special offer in supermarkets from the beginning of March. We got used to eating chocolate eggs for a full month before Easter.
Chocolate manufacturers must be delighted with this marketing success, but as a veterinarian I am very aware that the increase in sales of Easter eggs means that there is an increased risk of problems for dogs. The main issue is that chocolate is toxic to dogs, and the more chocolate there is in the house, the higher the risk of dogs accidentally eating a toxic dose of chocolate.
Chocolate toxicity in dogs is largely misunderstood, and there are seven key points that everyone should know.
1. The basic fact is that chocolate contains a stimulant called theobromine. This is well tolerated by humans, giving us a slightly euphoric buzz, which is one of the reasons chocolate is such a popular human treat. Dogs cannot metabolize theobromine as efficiently as humans, and blood levels rise rapidly after eating a small amount of chocolate. High levels of theobromine interfere with the functioning of the heart muscle, causing an irregular rhythm, leading to outright heart failure. As a practicing veterinarian, I see at least one dog die every year from chocolate poisoning. This is not a theoretical risk: it is a real danger.
2. Different types of chocolate contain varying amounts of theobromine: the darker the chocolate, the higher its concentration. Regular dark chocolate contains the highest levels, milk chocolate contains medium levels, while white chocolate contains no theobromine at all. And there are many “chocolate flavored” treats that contain no chocolate at all, and therefore no theobromine. The risk to a dog depends on how much of which type of chocolate was eaten. If you’re worried after your dog eats chocolate, take a picture of the packaging and ingredients, so you can show the vet exactly what your dog ingested.
3. It is wrong to assume that it is safe to give dogs small amounts of chocolate as treats. While it’s true that small amounts of chocolate won’t poison dogs directly, the problem is that it teaches them to love the taste, making them more likely to seek out chocolate if it ever comes their way. . Dogs have such a sensitive sense of smell that if they’ve been primed with a desire for chocolate, they’re able to find it and eat it in surprising situations.
4. The other big difference between dogs and humans when it comes to chocolate is that they don’t have an “off” switch when it comes to eating chocolate. If you or I were presented with a large box of chocolates, we might eat four or five chocolates before deciding we had had enough. Dogs know no such inhibition: they love chocolate so much that they continue to eat until the last crumb is gone. This wild appetite for chocolate means that if a dog finds a stash of chocolate of any kind, he will likely consume all of it.
5. Chocolate toxicity is dose-related and predictable: in other words, it’s easy to tell when a dog has eaten a toxic amount. Small dogs are most at risk, as a relatively small amount of chocolate is dangerous. For example, the lethal dose for a small terrier weighing 6 kg would be only 50 g (two ounces) of dark chocolate or 100 g (four ounces) of milk chocolate, which corresponds to a small Easter egg. In contrast, a 30kg Labrador would need to eat five small milk chocolate Easter eggs to be at serious risk. The practical reality of the availability of chocolate in the home means that small dogs are most at risk of chocolate poisoning.
6. When it is known that a dog eats chocolate, the three important facts are the type of chocolate, the quantity consumed and the weight of the dog. Chocolate poisoning calculators are widely available online (eg petfixclub.com), and by entering the type and amount of chocolate, followed by the dog’s weight, it is easy to determine if the dog is at risk. If you don’t have internet access or don’t have all the information you need, it’s safest to call your local vet right away (or the vet on call if it’s after hours) or to use a veterinary messaging service, such as Petfixclub.com.
7. If there is any suspicion that the dog has eaten a toxic amount, it is extremely important to arrange to see your veterinarian immediately. If a dog is forced to vomit within an hour, the chocolate will be removed from the stomach before it is absorbed into the bloodstream, thus preventing the seizure. Veterinarians have access to a convenient injection that immediately and safely induces vomiting. Some people decide to “wait and see what happens,” but that’s a dangerous approach: By the time a dog starts showing signs of being unwell, a toxic level of theobromine is already in the bloodstream, and nothing can be done to stop its dangerous impact on heart function. There is a high risk of death if enough chocolate has been eaten.