People have been enjoying chocolate for more than 2,000 years. The Latin name for the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao, which translates to “food of the gods.” For anyone who loves chocolate, this name makes perfect sense.

You may be tempted to share this delectable treat and let your pet experience the chocolatey goodness, but sadly, your pet will have to abstain. Our team at Palmer Veterinary Clinic explains why chocolate is dangerous for your pet, and how they are affected by this ingredient.

Why is chocolate toxic to pets?

Chocolate contains two toxic ingredients, theobromine and caffeine, which cause problems for pets. Theobromine and caffeine are readily absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, and distributed throughout the pet’s body. They work in several ways to result in toxicosis for pets:

  • They competitively inhibit adenosine receptors, resulting in central nervous system stimulation, increased urination, and increased heart rate.
  • They increase intracellular calcium levels, causing increased strength and contractions of skeletal and cardiac muscles.
  • They increase cyclic adenosine monophosphate levels, increasing circulating epinephrine and norepinephrine levels.

Is all chocolate equally toxic to pets?

Different chocolate types have different theobromine and caffeine levels, meaning some chocolate is more toxic than others.

  • White chocolate — Contains only trace amounts of theobromine and caffeine
  • Milk chocolate — Contains 58 mg/oz theobromine and 6 mg/oz caffeine
  • Dark chocolate — Contains 130 mg/oz theobromine and 20 mg/oz caffeine
  • Semisweet chocolate — Contains 138 mg/oz theobromine and 22 mg/oz caffeine
  • Baking chocolate — Contains 393 mg/oz theobromine and 47 mg/oz caffeine
  • Dry cocoa powder — Contains 737 mg/oz theobromine and 67 mg/oz caffeine
  • Cocoa bean — Contains 600 mg/oz theobromine

Different pets react differently to dosages, but the average toxic dose for pets is 100 mg/kg for theobromine and 140 mg/kg for caffeine. This means that for the average 25 kg family dog, a fatal dose is 1.5 kg of milk chocolate, 400 gm of semi-sweet chocolate, and 140 gm of baking chocolate. If your pet ingests chocolate, you can use a chocolate toxicity calculator to determine their toxicity, based on their weight and how much chocolate they ingested. You should also immediately call Palmer Veterinary Clinic or Animal Poison Control.

What are chocolate toxicity signs in pets?

Clinical signs typically take several hours to manifest after a pet ingests chocolate. Theobromine has a long half-life, meaning it remains in the bloodstream for a long time. This results in signs lasting for several days, if a large amount was ingested. Signs typically progress as follows:

  • Initial signs — These may include increased thirst, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal distention, and restlessness.
  • Later signs — Signs may progress to hyperactivity, increased urination, incoordination, muscle rigidity, tremors, and seizures.
  • Severe signs — In severe cases, signs may include increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, cyanosis, high blood pressure, a heart arrhythmia called premature ventricular contractions, elevated body temperature, and coma.

If death occurs, cardiac arrhythmias, elevated body temperature, or respiratory failure are usually the cause. The high fat content in chocolate can also trigger pancreatitis in some pets.

How is chocolate toxicity in pets treated?

An antidote for chocolate toxicosis does not exist, so treatment is focused on preventing absorption and supportive care. Early and aggressive treatment intervention increases the chance for a favorable outcome.

  • If the chocolate was ingested one to four hours previously, vomiting can be induced. Gastric lavage may also be performed, to remove as much chocolate from the stomach as possible.
  • Activated charcoal can also be administered, to prevent theobromine and caffeine from being absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract. Intravenous fluids are used to stabilize the pet, and promote theobromine and caffeine excretion.
  • A pet’s cardiac status and body temperature will be monitored during the treatment course, and a urinary catheter may be placed to ensure the theobromine and caffeine cannot be reabsorbed via the bladder.
  • If the pet is seizuring, anti-seizure medications will be administered, to control the episodes.
  • Once the pet is stabilized, they can be offered water and a bland diet. They should be closely monitored for 24 to 48 hours post treatment, depending on clinical signs.

How can chocolate toxicosis be prevented in pets?

Chocolate toxicosis can easily be prevented with a few simple precautions:

  • Never intentionally feed chocolate to your pet. Ensure your children realize the danger as well, so they don’t inadvertently poison your pet.
  • Store all chocolate and chocolate-containing products in high or locked cupboards, to ensure your pet cannot access them.
  • Be particularly careful around holidays such as Valentine’s day, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas, when more chocolate is usually available.
  • Avoid using gardening mulches that contain cocoa bean shells.

The good news is that since you can’t give your pet chocolate, you can enjoy more chocolate! Chocolate can pose a significant risk to your pet, but these few precautions can safeguard them from becoming poisoned. If your pet ingests chocolate, do not hesitate to contact our team at Palmer Veterinary Clinic, so we can save them from a death by chocolate.