Alana Dowdell, DVM
As Easter approaches, the temptation of chocolate can be overwhelming for us, as well as our pets. While our waistlines expand, the consequences for dogs and cats are much more severe as they cannot properly metabolize the stimulants in chocolate. Theobromine and caffeine are the main problems; these chemicals are also found in coffee, and act as stimulants and toxicants in our pets.
Dark and baking chocolate are most toxic, followed by semi-sweet and milk chocolate.
Although there is no “safe” level of ingestion, we can estimate risks based on the weight of the pet and the weight and type of chocolate consumed.
Nursing puppies can be affected because the troublesome methyxanthine alkaloids can cross the placenta and are also excreted in the animal’s milk. Therefore unborn young and newborns may also be affected.
Caffeine and theobromine stimulate the central nervous system and cardiac muscle, cause the kidneys to produce more urine, and make smooth muscle relax. Thus, clinical signs include restlessness, hyperactivity, urinary incontinence, diarrhea, vomiting, muscle twitching or stiffness, and even seizures in serious cases. The heart can also start beating very quickly. The overactive muscles can generate a lot of heat which can cause hyperthermia or overheating.
Vomiting and diarrhea due to effects on the intestinal muscle usually occurs two to four hours after the animal has consumed the chocolate. Rich chocolates also usually contain high levels of fat. This fat can trigger inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) which is very painful and can be very serious. This also induces vomiting but is delayed and can show up a few days after the chocolate is consumed.
While there isn’t a direct for chocolate poisoning, we can support animals through the crisis. In the early stages, we can induce vomiting to clear the chocolate from the system, which is not a fun way to spend your Easter holiday. If it has passed through the stomach, we can feed activated charcoal to pets to help bind some of the toxins further down the gastrointestinal tract. Fluid therapy may be necessary to correct any electrolyte disturbances caused by excessive vomiting.
There are many safe pet treats available for rewarding your dog from liver snaps to veggies. Commercial “dog chocolate” is also on the market and is usually based on carob so contains no real chocolate, and thus, minimal risk. Just remember this Easter that Fido is best to have a bunny made of liver than one of chocolate! Tuck those baskets and treats away so as to remove any temptation.