“Never feed a dog chocolate.”
So many pet owners have heard – and heeded – the repeated warnings regarding the dangers posed to our four-legged friends by this seemingly innocuous sweet treat.
But accidents happen. Dogs are opportunistic. And according to Dr. Lois Palin, VMD, chocolate ingestion is perhaps the most common phone call the Doylestown Veterinary Hospital team receives from clients after a dog has eaten something it shouldn’t have.
And with so many holidays – from Valentine’s Day to Easter to Christmas – offering up bags, boxes, and bucketfuls of candy and desserts, chocolate is frequently never far from reach in our homes.
“The degree of seriousness with chocolate varies not only with the amount that has been eaten but also the type,” Dr. Palin says.
“Chocolate is toxic to dogs because it contains chemicals called Methylxanthines,” she continues. “One of these chemicals is called theobromine. The other is caffeine. And those two toxins have similar effects on dogs, but the effects of theobromine are much longer lasting than caffeine.”
The kicker? The amount of theobromine varies depending on the type of chocolate. Baking chocolate contains the highest amount, notes Dr. Palin, followed by semi-sweet and dark chocolate, then milk chocolate, and then chocolate flavoring in cakes and cookies.
If your dog has helped itself to, say, a Hershey’s bar or an unattended brick of baker’s chocolate, symptoms can pop up anywhere from one to 12 hours afterward. The most common red flags include vomiting, hyperactivity, and/or tremors.
“And then we start getting into the more serious things,” Dr. Palin says.
Depending on the severity of the ingestion, some dogs have gone into seizures and experienced rapid heart rates or irregular rhythms.
“In really severe cases, theobromine consumption can kill dogs,” Dr. Palin says.
What You Should Do If Your Dog Has Eaten Chocolate
The first step any pet owner should take if they suspect their dog has eaten something poisonous or otherwise harmful is to contact their veterinarian, Dr. Palin says.
“What we’re going to need to know is what type of chocolate your dog has eaten and, as best as you can guess, how much they’ve eaten in ounces. Sometimes the amount is not clear. We’re always going to go with worst case scenario for treatment.”
At Doylestown Veterinary Hospital, doctors have access to what Dr. Palin calls “chocolate calculators,” which allow the team to determine if the amount ingested is concerning or not.
If a call comes in after hours, the Doylestown team frequently directs pet owners to call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.
“This is a paid service, but you’re able to speak directly to a veterinary toxicologist who can direct you regarding next steps and whether the amount of chocolate ingested is going to be dangerous for your dog,” Dr. Palin says.
After speaking to a professional, pet owners often will be told to go to the veterinary office or the emergency room where, based on the amount and type of chocolate eaten, various treatments can be administered.
“We may induce vomiting or sometimes dogs will be given what we call absorbents, like activated charcoal, which binds up the chocolate and prevents it from being absorbed into the GI tract.”
If the ingestion is severe, some animals, Dr. Palin notes, may need to be hospitalized for supportive care, including heart monitoring, IV fluids, and more.
“It can take up to four days for the effects of chocolate to work its way out of a dog’s system,” she says.
The Dark Truth About White Chocolate and Dogs
When it comes to human consumption, white chocolate seems to divide foodies. Some love its light, airy flavor (hailing from cocoa butter, milk solids, and sugar), while others deride it for, well, not being chocolate.
Regardless, when it comes to our dogs – it’s still a big no-no, whether they like it or not.
“White chocolate is not directly toxic to dogs, because it doesn’t have theobromine or caffeine in it,” Dr. Palin says. “But what it does have – as does all chocolate – is high-fat content. And that can make dogs sick too, by causing pancreatitis, which can be a serious health issue.”
Pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, is most commonly triggered by a high-fat meal or ingestion of a high-fat food, Dr. Palin says.
“It can cause abdominal pain, as well as vomiting and diarrhea, and occasionally it is severe enough that pets need to be hospitalized.”
Dr. Palin and other veterinarians won’t sugarcoat their advice. After all, chocolate can make dogs incredibly sick.
The bottom line? Keep chocolate out of reach to the very best of your ability and keep your veterinarian on speed dial if you forget – and your dog has a sweet tooth.
If needed, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Line can be reached 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by calling 888-426-4435.