Chocolate poisoning is common around the holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter—when lots of candy is available. Chocolate is made from the roasted seeds of cocoa plants and contains theobromine, a stimulant related to caffeine; both are toxic to pets. Eating too much chocolate shifts your dog’s heart into overdrive and can kill him.
All pets are at risk for chocolate poisoning. But puppies get into chocolate most often because of their curious nature. And their smaller size increases the risk of chocolate poisoning even if they munch a small quantity.
Symptoms of Chocolate Poisoning in Dogs
The theobromine and caffeine found in chocolate are stimulants that affect the dog or puppy's nervous system, causing hyperactive behavior along with other signs. Poisoned pets may pass large amounts of urine due to the diuretic effect of the drug, which also relaxes bladder control. In addition, pups poisoned with chocolate will drool, act thirsty, and vomit and/or have bouts of diarrhea. Even if they didn't ingest life-threatening quantities of chocolate, diarrhea and vomiting can leave you with potty accidents to clean up.
Other symptoms can include:
- abnormal heart rate
- muscle spasms
Causes of Chocolate Poisoning
Chocolate poisoning occurs when a dog consumes the theobromine and caffeine in chocolate, with dark or baker's chocolate containing far more than white or milk chocolate. Even small amounts of chocolate can, however, be dangerous to a small dog or puppy.
Milk chocolate usually doesn’t cause life-threatening problems because it takes nearly two pounds of milk chocolate to poison a seven-pound puppy. Milk chocolate found in candy bars contains about 42 milligrams of theobromine per ounce. Typically, a toxic dose of milk chocolate is five ounces per pound of body weight. While a bite of chocolate generally isn’t a concern, a 10-pound puppy can still get very sick from eating as little as eight ounces of milk chocolate. White chocolate contains even less theobromine, and is less of a risk.
Unsweetened baking chocolate is much more dangerous. It contains nearly ten times as much theobromine as milk chocolate or about 450 milligrams of theobromine per ounce. Baking chocolate is used to make truffles, brownies, chocolate cake, and other desserts. A lethal dose of theobromine is .67 to 1.3 ounces of baking chocolate per 2.2 pounds of dog. That means your 10-pound puppy can become sick or even die simply by licking the chocolate frosting off a large cake, swiping a truffle, or lapping up your hot cocoa.
Treatment for Chocolate Poisoning
If your dog or puppy has consumed chocolate you may want to administer first aid immediately; after that a visit to the vet is critically important. There is no antidote for chocolate poisoning. Affected dogs are offered supportive treatment from the veterinarian to prevent further absorption of the poison and hasten elimination, along with symptomatic treatment.
Activated charcoal may be administered to help prevent additional absorption of the theobromine into the puppy's system. Signs of shock are addressed with fluid therapy; seizures, heart irregularities, vomiting, and diarrhea are each specifically treated with appropriate medications. The treatment is often prolonged because of the half-life of theobromine—the time it takes the body to eliminate it—is 72 hours in dogs.
First Aid for Chocolate Poisoning
If you catch your puppy snacking on chocolate, induce vomiting as soon as you can to get rid of the poison. Even if you don’t see your pet consuming chocolate but find suspicious evidence such as chewed up candy wrappers, it’s a good idea to get him to purge. Chocolate isn't absorbed very quickly, so making him vomit may be helpful even a couple of hours after ingestion.
It can be dangerous to induce vomiting if the pup acts woozy. They can inhale the material on its way up and suffocate. As long as he’s alert, there are several methods you can use to get rid of the chocolate.
- First, feed the pup a small meal. This helps dilute the toxin and delay its absorption. Having something of substance in the stomach also makes it much easier to induce vomiting.
- Give your pet 3% hydrogen peroxide, one to two teaspoons for every 10 pounds the pup weighs. Squirt to the back of the pet’s tongue with an eyedropper, needless syringe, or turkey baster. The taste and foaming prompt vomiting within five minutes. If it doesn’t work the first time, you can repeat two or three times, with five minutes between doses.
- Syrup of Ipecac is effective for dogs. Ipecac takes longer to work than hydrogen peroxide, though, and only one dose should be given. The dose is one teaspoon for dogs less than 35 pounds, and up to a tablespoon for larger dogs.
- If you have nothing else available, table salt prompts vomiting after the first or second dose. Give it dry, onto the back of the pet’s tongue—one teaspoonful at a time for little pups or a tablespoonful for adult-size pups. Repeat in three minutes if the first dose doesn’t work.
- Call the veterinarian for further instructions after the pet has emptied his stomach. If you can’t induce vomiting after a couple of tries, prompt veterinary care is even more important.
Preventing Chocolate Poisoning in Dogs
The best way to deal with chocolate toxicity is to prevent the problem from ever happening. Most dogs and puppies have a sweet tooth, so keep chocolate out of reach and be especially vigilant around the holidays. In addition, you can help to prevent chocolate poisoning by:
- Crate training your dog so that it doesn't have access to treats left out overnight
- Teaching your dog to "leave it," so that you can control your pet's actions if you see it about to snack on chocolate
- Talking with all adults in the house about maintaining a chocolate-free zone to keep pets healthy