Chocolate Poisoning in Dogs: A Guide

Chocolate is a tempting treat for both dogs and their owners. Fortunately for humans, it is not toxic for most of us. Dogs, on the other hand, are not as lucky. Ingesting chocolate will make a dog very ill indeed; in fact, the more they eat, the worse they will feel.

This is important to know for all pet parents, because chocolate is everywhere in most people’s households. From baker’s chocolate and candy to hot chocolate powder and semi-sweet chocolate chips, there’s chocolate lurking in places your dog’s nose can find (and eat) faster than you can say, “Leave it!”

Below is a complete guide on everything you need to know about chocolate poisoning in dogs.

Why Is Chocolate Poisonous To Dogs?

So what exactly happens when a dog eats chocolate? Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean, which contains two potent chemicals – caffeine and theobromine. These two chemicals act a lot alike, but the theobromine is the more troublesome in chocolate poisoning incidents. Most humans can safely metabolize both chemicals. In fact, these chemicals can be found in blood vessel dilators, diuretics, muscle relaxers and stimulants.

Unfortunately, dogs can’t eat chocolate because they are unable to successfully metabolize either of those chemicals. This, in turn, leaves them much more vulnerable to the stimulating effects of theobromine and caffeine.

To get an idea of the problems they create for your dog, sit back and remember a time you really regretted getting an extra shot of espresso or two in our morning coffee. For some, three shots of espresso used to be necessary, but one day it just wasn’t a good idea anymore. Imagine that day going even worse for your pet, who also has no idea why he is feeling so sick and shaky inside after eating a nice big hunk of yummy chocolate.

How Much Chocolate Is Too Much?

Just how sick a dog gets from eating chocolate has everything to do with two things:

  • How much chocolate they ingest – in relation to their weight, age and health.
  • What kind of chocolate they ingest – the darker and more concentrated the chocolate, the worse the impact.

The level of toxic theobromine is much higher in dark and bitter chocolate. Unfortunately for dogs, a trendy fad being embraced by humans is eating the darkest chocolate they can get. People that are trying to cut their sugar intake are going to gourmet chocolate shops, or other places to buy and eat 90 percent and 100 percent chocolate bars. Like coffee and liquor, this very dark chocolate is an acquired taste that actually tastes pretty good over time. However, these gourmet chocolate bars and other sources of dark chocolate can contain a whopping 130 to 450 mg of theobromine per ounce, which would be very bad for a dog to get ahold of.

Even people who do not enjoy dark, bitter chocolate as a treat, are likely to have some at home. People keep semi-sweet chocolate chips on hand for making cookies. Cookie dough with dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips set out to thaw can be snatched up by a dog and snacked on until it’s too late.

People who bake usually have cocoa powder and baking chocolate, which is used for brownies, cakes and hot chocolate. These two types of chocolate have the highest concentration of theobromine and caffeine.

Milk chocolate, by comparison, contains around 40 to 60 mg per ounce. The drawback with milk chocolate is people are likely to have a lot more of it around the house and in places their dogs can get easy access to it. White chocolate has very little theobromine in it, .25 mg per ounce. While the theobromine in white chocolate poses a smaller threat for dogs, it’s important to remember that all dogs can have difficulty digesting both the milk and sugar found in most types of chocolate, too.

In addition to the information above, it is important to remember:

  • The smaller the dog, the less chocolate it takes to make them ill.
  • The darker the chocolate, the less chocolate it takes to make a dog ill.

For example, VCA Hospitals reports specific amounts of theobromine that dogs that have ingested and their effects: as little as 20 mg of the chemical can bring on agitation, hyperactivity, canine diarrhea, drooling and vomiting in dogs. If your dog is acting sick, but you aren’t sure what he ate, their excretions may smell like chocolate. That smell can help you determine whether or not you’re dealing with legitimate chocolate poisoning.

At doses of 40 mg, theobromine starts to impact a dog’s heart, resulting in racing or irregular heartbeats and high blood pressure in dogs. A 60-mg dose can lead to nervous system problems and canine seizures.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that any of the symptoms manifested by chocolate poisoning in dogs can lead to life-threatening complications, too. Below, some of the tell-tale signs of chocolate poisoning in dogs:

Symptoms of chocolate poisoning in dogs include:

What To Do If You Think Your Dog Has Chocolate Poisoning

If you have reason to believe that your dog has eaten chocolate (or is exhibiting the symptoms that would lead you to believe the sweet treat is at the root of the problem), you can take steps to help your dog. However, as in any medical emergency, time is of the essence.

There are numerous first aid tips to be found online; however, they could make things much worse if you make the wrong call. In any chocolate-related emergency, it’s always best to bring your pooch to your trusted veterinarian as quickly as possible. Once there, the vet can take steps to alleviate symptoms and block the theobromine from getting any deeper into your dog’s system. The longer the theobromine remains in your dog’s system, the worse off he will be. Try to provide your vet with any information you can gather regarding how much chocolate – as well as kind of chocolate – your dog has ingested.

Whether or not you remember or know exactly what happened, the vet can run tests such as a chemical blood profiles, electrolyte panels and urinalysis in order to determine the level of theobromine and caffeine in your dog’s system. An electrocardiogram can help determine whether your dog is suffering from heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat issues, too.

Treatment for chocolate poisoning are more effective early on in the progression of the illness. They may include inducing vomiting or administering activated charcoal to keep the theobromine from being absorbed into your dog’s bloodstream. Depending on how much and what kind of chocolate your dog has ingested, he may need several doses of activated charcoal in the first 24-hour period. The vet may give beta blockers to dogs that eat enough theobromine and caffeine to cause heart issues which will help to slow down the heart to a normal rate.

Be Prepared: Chocolate Poisoning & Your Dog

Dog owners that really want to help both themselves and their dogs through a chocolate poisoning incident can take a proactive step towards accomplishing that goal: by acting as if you may one day have to help your dog through such an incident, you can save valuable time if and when it actually happens.

For example, if your dog has eaten any form of chocolate, you can try to discern how much of it will impact him by consulting this Dog Chocolate Toxicity Meter. The meter lets you input your dog’s weight, the type of chocolate and the amount of chocolate that has been consumed.

Using the meter helps to illustrate the effects of chocolate on your dog (relevant to his size and type of chocolate, among other factors): whereas 8 ounces of milk chocolate can make a 50-lb dog become ill, it takes only 1 ounce of Bakers chocolate to kill the same size dog.

Using the toxicity meter can help you, your vet or someone who answers the ASPCA’s 24/7, 365-day-a-year Animal Poison Control hotline (ph: 888-426-4435) to decide what actions to take in the event that your dog has eaten chocolate or is suffering from any of the symptoms that have been outlined above. Hotline representatives can also factor in important considerations (such as your dog’s age and overall health) when determining an appropriate course of action to advise you during your call.

Thinking about what you would do today in a worst-case scenario will enable you to act more quickly in the future. In fact, you can add the animal poison control hotline number to your contact list and bookmark the toxicity meter on your cellphone right now in order to save time when you need it the most.  

A Measure Of Prevention: How To Keep Your Dog Safe From Chocolate Poisoning

  • Never assume: Perhaps your dog has eaten chocolate in the past and had no problems with it. It is likely that he did not eat enough chocolate, or the more potent type of pure dark chocolate that otherwise would have caused your dog to suffer from the detrimental effects of theobromine or caffeine. In addition to his size, your dog’s age and pre-existing health issues can have an impact on his ability to metabolize the dangerous chemicals in chocolate as well. For example, older dogs and dogs with heart issues are much more susceptible to collapsing and dying from chocolate poisoning.
  • Better to be safe than sorry: Many people frequent pet stores that enable them to purchase dog treats made with carob, which is a tasty chocolate substitute. Others are comfortable giving their dogs a little bit of milk chocolate or white chocolate. These dog owners have good reason to believe that ingesting either type of chocolate in small amounts will not expose their dogs to toxic levels of theobromine. However, if you lead a dog to chocolate, just like one of us humans, you are helping to create a dog that inevitably will want more chocolate.

Simply put, giving a dog chocolate or chocolate substitutes is counterproductive to any efforts that a dog owner rightly should take to keep their pet safe from chocolate poisoning at home or on the go. Do yourself and your dog a favor and always keep chocolate out of reach. Once they have eaten it, their expert noses won’t pass up the chance to find any chocolate that they get a whiff of coming from someplace nearby. As an added precaution, store any chocolate in your home in airtight containers thatwillkeep its scent away from your dog.

  • Celebrate the holidays safely: Dogs are especially at risk for chocolate poisoning during the holidays when chocolate is often found in abundance around the house. Be it Easter, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas, the holidays are typically a time of baking and displaying chocolate-laden treats & candies throughout homes and backyards. In addition to treats being more easily accessible to your pet, friends and family members who don’t know any better will happily share their cookies and brownies with your pooch.
  • Take extra care with puppies: Puppies are like little children – they want to check out everything they see or smell and put it in their mouths. Due to their small size and weight, puppies are victims of chocolate poisoning; while the incidence of accidental ingestion is greater over the holidays, your young pooch is susceptible year-round. With that said, keep chocolate treats away from puppies by storing in the fridge or in an area where your pet can’t access it, and let visitors know that just a tiny bit of chocolate could kill a puppy all too quickly. According to research, a 10-lb puppy can become sick or die by licking chocolate frosting off a large cake, swiping a truffle or lapping up a hot cocoa.
  • Crate train your dog: As any pet parent knows, dogs are nearly always up to eating – natural hunters and gatherers, they’re also capable of getting into plenty of mischief when it comes to food, as well as eating things they shouldn’t. All too often, when we’re not around to supervise, your dog is more than likely going to hunt around for something to eat while you are sleeping or out running errands. Keeping this in mind, crate training your dog may be an option worth considering; ask your vet or professional pet trainer if you’re unfamiliar with the techniques entailed.

Although some people may fear it’s cruel, remember, your dog is a pack animal – before dogs were domesticated, they would burrow in the leaves to create a safe nest-like area to lay down in. Therefore, containing your dog in a comfy, properly sized crate will not only protect him from accidental ingestion of chocolate (as well as other toxic foods for dogs), but create a safe haven for him that he may even find comforting.

  • Leave it: The American Kennel Club recommends teaching dogs the command to “leave it” whenever they pick up something that shouldn’t be in their mouths, including chocolate they may find at home, on a walk or at a friend’s house.

If you know your dog has eaten chocolate, make sure to call your vet as soon as possible for further recommendations.

Sources Cited:

Brutlag, Ahna, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT, Associate Dir. of Vet. Services. “Chocolate Poisoning In Dogs.” VCA hospitals.com, (no publish date), https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/chocolate-poisoning-in-dogs. Accessed October 29, 2018.

“Dog Chocolate Toxicity Meter.” PetMD.com, (no publish date), https://www.petmd.com/dog/chocolate-toxicity . Accessed October 29, 2018.

“Risk of chocolate poisoning in dogs peaks at Christmas, warn experts.” CBS News video via YouTube.com, published December 20, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0rogVJbH6Y. Accessed October 29, 2018.

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