We all love nothing more than a bar of chocolate - The International Cocoa Organization estimates that the average British citizen eats over 11kg of chocolate a year! Although harmless to us (apart from to our waistline) chocolate can make dogs very poorly indeed! This is due to a toxin called Theobromine, a chemical found in the plants used in chocolate manufacture. Humans are able to break down Theobromine quickly enough for it not to act as a poison. However, dogs metabolise the chemical much slower, meaning it can cause detrimental effects.
Different types of chocolate
The concentration of Theobromine varies between different types of chocolate. Dark chocolate contains much more theobromine than milk chocolate, with white chocolate containing a very low concentration indeed. However, all forms of chocolate can be harmful to dogs depending on the amount eaten. Cocoa powders and beans contain the highest concentration of theobromine, and are therefore the most toxic form of chocolate a dog can ingest. Cooking chocolates can also contain very high levels of theobromine - therefore, chocolate cakes and cookies can also cause dogs to become unwell.
Symptoms of Theobromine poisoning
The poison itself takes between 4 and 24 hours to cause signs which include:
- Muscle stiffness
- Heart arrhythmias and fitting.
The toxin stimulates the nervous system and makes muscles work much harder - this can have detrimental effects on both the heart and kidneys.
Unfortunately, if left untreated, some cases of chocolate poisoning can be fatal. However, if you suspect your pet has eaten any chocolate at all, we would advise you seek veterinary advice immediately. It’s sensible to keep any relevant wrappers, and try to work out the amount that you suspect or know your pet has eaten. Your vet will be able to calculate how much theobromine your dog has ingested, and may need to make them sick to stop further toxins being absorbed. The vet may also wish to perform some tests to see if the toxin is having initial effects on the body. Sometimes, your vet may wish to repeat these blood tests 24 hours after the ingestion, as it can take some time for the toxin to take effect.
If the theobromine has already been absorbed by the system, your vet may need to place your dog on a drip to try to help flush the toxin out of their system. If they’re showing any signs of chocolate poisoning, your vet will probably want to treat them with medications too. Not only is a case of chocolate poisoning extremely worrying for an owner, it can be very costly!
Remember, lots of other ingredients found in chocolates can be poisonous too, such as raisins, peanuts or coffee beans.
It’s therefore vital that dogs are never ever given chocolate as a treat. Dogs enjoy sweet tastes, and so can develop a taste for chocolate, just like we can!
Sadly, not all cases of chocolate poisoning arise by owners purposefully feeding their pet chocolate. We see a huge rise in incidents around Easter and Christmas. Although it’s very dangerous, chocolate tastes just as delicious to dogs as it does to us, and so some sneaky pets will chew open selection boxes, pinch Easter eggs or even scavenge chocolate on walks. Ingestion can therefore be purely accidental.
I once treated a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who ate a whole box of dark chocolate covered peanuts on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, this naughty little pup had eaten the packaging of the chocolates too, which included a plastic lid. This meant that we had to perform a surgery to remove the lid which was stuck in the stomach, as well as treat him for signs of theobromine toxicity. It’s only because his owner arrived home to see him take the last mouthful that he survived to tell the tale!
How to help prevent it
Many cases occur when owners are at work, and so storage in high cupboards where pets can’t reach is strongly recommended. Rubbish bins should be dog proof, as dogs will use their sense of smell to identify that lovely chocolate aroma and will do anything to get a taste! It’s also important to educate children that dogs should never be given chocolate, as we often find that cases arise when children treat dogs to titbits of chocolate.
Preventing our dogs from eating chocolate is one of the best things that we can do as pet owners. However should a case of ingestion arise, swift veterinary treatment will often result in a happy ending for our pets.
Even though they have to have a visit to the vets, they must be supervised closely afterwards. As just like us, they'll have developed a taste and become lifelong chocoholics!