Most of us have heard that chocolate can make dogs sick. But how serious is the risk?
By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Katherine Snyder, DVM
If your canine companion is more family member than pet, you may be in the habit of sharing the foods your family loves with him.
Although some people foods are fine in moderation, this is definitely not the case with chocolate.
Chocolate can sicken and even kill dogs, and it is one of the most common causes of canine poisoning, say veterinarians who spoke to WebMD.
Veterinarian Michelle DeHaven says the worst case of chocolate poisoning she ever saw happened when some owners fed their eight-pound poodle a pound of chocolate on his birthday.
“We had to treat the dog with fluids and anti-seizure medication for five days," says DeHaven, who practices in Smyrna, Ga. "Every time we stopped the meds he would start seizuring again. You wouldn't feed a kid a pound of chocolate, but they fed it to a small dog.”
Most experts say that although no amount of chocolate is OK for your dog to consume, it would take a large quantity to kill him. Furthermore, the real risk lies with dark and baker's chocolate; milk and white chocolate pose a much less serious risk.
What Makes Chocolate Poisonous to Dogs?
Chocolate is made from cocoa, and cocoa beans contain both caffeine and a related chemical compound called theobromine, which is the real danger.
The problem is that dogs metabolize theobromine much more slowly than humans, Denver veterinarian Kevin Fitzgerald, PhD, tells WebMD.
“The buzz we get from eating chocolate may last 20 to 40 minutes, but for dogs it lasts many hours,” he says. “After 17 hours, half of the theobromine a dog has ingested is still in the system.”
Theobromine is also toxic to cats, but there are very few reported cases of theobromine poisoning in felines because they rarely eat chocolate.
Dogs, on the other hand, will eat just about anything.
Even small amounts of chocolate can cause vomiting and diarrhea in dogs. Truly toxic amounts can induce hyperactivity, tremors, high blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, seizures, respiratory failure, and cardiac arrest.
Dogs and Chocolate: How Much is Too Much?
The more theobromine a cocoa product contains, the more poisonous it is to your dog.
Unsweetened bakers chocolate contains about 390 milligrams of theobromine per ounce -- about 10 times more than milk chocolate and more than twice as much as semi-sweet chocolate. White chocolate contains very little theobromine.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, once ounce of milk chocolate per pound of body weight is potentially lethal.
But the real danger lies with dark chocolate. Merck warns that deaths have been reported with theobromine doses as low as 115 milligrams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight.
So 20 ounces of milk chocolate, 10 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate, and just 2.25 ounces of baking chocolate could potentially kill a 22-pound dog, Fitzgerald says.
Serious toxic reactions can occur with ingestion of about 100 to 150 milligrams of theobromine per kilogram of body weight.
- A 9-pound dog could be expected to exhibit symptoms of chocolate toxicity after eating 1 ounce of baking chocolate, 3 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate, or 9 ounces of milk chocolate.
- A 27-pound dog might have such symptoms after eating 3 ounces of baking chocolate, 9 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate, and 27 ounces of milk chocolate.
- A 63-pound dog might exhibit symptoms after eating 7 ounces of baking chocolate, 21 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate, or 63 ounces of milk chocolate.
“In 27 years of practice, I've seen two dogs die from eating chocolate,” says Fitzgerald, who appears regularly on Animal Planet's hit show Emergency Vets. “Both were under 20 pounds, both were elderly and both ate baking chocolate in very large amounts.”
Although most people would not eat a 4-ounce bar of bitter-tasting baking chocolate, this is not true of dogs, he says.
“Dogs experience the world through tasting it, and they are gorgers,” he says. “Baking chocolate tastes good to them.”
Your Dog Ate Chocolate: Now What?
DeHaven, who owns Cumberland Animal Clinic in Smyrna, says she typically gets two to three calls a month from owners whose dogs have eaten chocolate.
When an owner calls, she asks how much and what kind of chocolate the dog has eaten and the dog's weight.
“If a 60-pound golden retriever eats a bag of Hershey's kisses, there isn't too much to worry about,” she says. “The dog will probably have a stomachache, but not much else.”
After eating a potentially toxic dose of chocolate, dogs will typically develop diarrhea and start vomiting.
If the dog is not vomiting on its own, the vet may advise inducing vomiting immediately to keep as much theobromine as possible from entering the system.
One way of doing this is by giving the dog a one to one solution of hydrogen peroxide and water. But DeHaven says the treatment is now discouraged because it can cause esophageal ulcers.
She recommends syrup of ipecac, which induces vomiting.
“If you have kids, you really need to have it in the house anyway,” she says.
When a dog shows signs of hyperactivity and agitation or is having seizures, the faster you get it to the vet the better. But there is no specific antidote for chocolate poisoning.
Fluids are typically given along with intravenous drugs to limit seizures and protect the heart.
Symptoms of theobromine poisoning generally occur within four to 24 hours after chocolate is consumed.
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Cocoa Shell Mulch: A Little-Known Danger
Most people don't realize it, but those increasingly popular cocoa shell mulches used for landscaping can also pose a serious risk to dogs in the same way that chocolate does.
Terry and Dawn Hall found out the hard way several years ago when their beloved 105-pound chocolate lab ‘Moose' died after eating just eight ounces of cocoa shell mulch used to landscape their Minneapolis yard.
The death prompted the couple to contact Minnesota state senator Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, who sponsored a bill to require cocoa mulch sellers to warn customers of the potential danger to dogs.
His bill was approved by the Legislature last spring, but vetoed by the governor.
“It is my understanding that theobromine can be removed from cocoa mulch pretty easily, and that some manufacturers do this and others do not,” Dibble tells WebMD. “But right now there is no way for the consumer to know if the mulch they are buying has been treated.”
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Merck Veterinary Manual, 8th Edition Online. Michelle DeHaven, DVM, owner, Cumberland Animal Clinic, Smyrna, Ga.
Kevin Fitzgerald, DVM, PhD, Alameda East Veterinary Hospital, Denver.
Scott Dibble, state senator, Minneapolis.
Saint Paul Ledger Capitol Report “Death by Chocolate: Couple Fights for Warning Labels on Cocoa Bean Mulch,” March 24, 2009.