There are few foods that elicit such emotion as chocolate! These are just a few of the expletives commonly uttered in relation to chocolate: Heaven! Divine! Pure joy! Even, death by chocolate! It is such a source of pleasure for so many humans that they find it unimaginable that it can harm pets. But sadly it harms many dogs each year. Here’s why.
Chocolate is derived from a plant! This mere fact brings joy to confessed chocoholics the world round, who proudly exclaim that it is a vegetable, and natural, and therefore probably “good for you!” To be correct, it is the product of the seeds of a plant known as Theobroma cacao. The word “theobroma” is derived from ancient Greek and means, “food of the gods.” So our modern expletives match how the ancient Greeks felt it about it too. The seeds are sun-dried and processed to extract cacao, cocoa butter, and chocolate liquor used to produce many of the foods that we associate with chocolate. But in spite of all its deliciousness, chocolate contains xanthine alkaloids, which are the toxic substances. The most predominant is theobromine, followed by theophylline and caffeine found in lesser amounts. The concentration of both theobromine and caffeine varies widely depending on the type of chocolate. Milk chocolate contains about 60 mg of theobromine per ounce while unsweetened baking chocolate contains up to 450 mg per ounce. Cacao powder used in baking can contain over 700 mg of theobromine per ounce! So the type of chocolate exposure really makes a big difference in terms of the illness the animal experiences.
Theobromine and caffeine act by specific receptors found in the brain and in the gastrointestinal tract. In the brain they stimulate the cells. Initially this results in restlessness, panting, vomiting, and sometimes loss of urinary control and diarrhea. In a short time this progresses to cause rigid muscles that sometimes tremor and can even progress onto seizures. It adversely affects the heart by causing a rapid heartbeat and an irregular heartbeat. If left untreated death can occur in about 18 to 24 hours, though it can also occur suddenly from cardiac failure.
The treatment given by a veterinarian can vary depending on the dose and type of chocolate eaten. Therefore it is very important to estimate what the maximum amount a dog could have eaten. I always instruct clients to take any bags, wrappers, or containers of chocolate that the dog has eaten from to the veterinary clinic along with the dog. That way the vet can determine the type of chocolate eaten as well as the maximum amounts. Treatment should be instituted as soon as possible after an exposure in order to prevent the life-threatening effects. Do not wait until your dog experiences signs of poisoning, but instead take her/him to the vet clinic as soon as possible after an exposure. Treatment is easier and more effective if instituted as soon as possible.
While chocolate is a source of joy for humans, it can be deadly dangerous to dogs. A little prevention goes a long way in preventing suffering. Be certain to keep anything containing chocolate tightly sealed in containers and put away in high cupboards in the kitchen. The tight containers prevent the sweet aroma from attracting dogs to it, and the high cupboards should be out of dog’s access and reach. While people think that chocolate is heavenly, your dog will not find that to be true!
This is Dr. John Tegzes, the toxvet, wishing you a poison-free day!
John H. Tegzes, MA, VMD, Dipl. ABVT
Dr. John Tegzes is a veterinarian who specializes and is board-certified in Toxicology. He graduated from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and completed residency-training in diagnostic and clinical Toxicology in the Vet School at the University of California, Davis. He has worked as a veterinarian in companion animal practices in Portland, OR, and in Toxicology at the Oregon Poison Center and the California Poison Control System. Currently he is a Professor of Toxicology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences in southern California. He resides in Los Angeles, California in the happy company of two dogs, two cats, and a sun conure.
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