March 14, 2016
With Valentine’s Day, the first “chocolate holiday” of the year behind us, another is fast approaching: Easter. Since there are many misconceptions about chocolate toxicity in our pets, let’s review why it is so important to keep chocolate away from them.
The toxic ingredient in chocolate is a powerful stimulant called theobromine. In theory, it is possible for people to suffer from theobromine toxicity but we would need to ingest a tremendous amount of chocolate over a long period of time for that to happen because we metabolize theobromine rapidly. Dogs and cats metabolize theobromine much more slowly, meaning that it can accumulate in the body and have more time for adverse effects to take place. It can take up to four days for theobromine to be fully eliminated from a dog’s body.
Theobromine can cause vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, seizures, heart arrhythmias, and even death. In addition, the fat and sugar in many chocolate products can trigger pancreatitis, vomiting, and diarrhea even if a toxic dose of theobromine is not ingested. Although chocolate is toxic to cats as well as dogs, we rarely see chocolate toxicity in cats as they have no taste receptors for sweet and generally are not as attracted to chocolate products as dogs.
Chocolate is made from seeds from the cacao tree. Seeds are processed into several products: Chocolate liquor is a liquid produced after grinding the hulled cacao beans. The liquor can be further processed to produce cocoa butter (fat extracted from the liquor) and cocoa powder (the solid left over after extracting the fat) or some of the fat can be left in to make the different types of chocolate we are familiar with. Unsweetened chocolate contains 50-60% chocolate liquor, semi-sweet chocolate contains around 35%, and milk chocolate contains at least 10%. Additional ingredients may include sugar, milk, vanilla, flavorings, and texturizers. White chocolate contains no chocolate liquor at all.
This is important because theobromine is found in the chocolate liquor and cocoa powder, so the more liquor there is in a product the more toxic it is. Therefore, the darker the chocolate, the more theobromine it contains. White chocolate does not contain any theobromine at all (but contains sugar and fat that may cause stomach upset).
If your pet eats chocolate, the most important and useful information for us when you call is his/her weight, the type of chocolate, and a known or estimated amount. This will help us determine if your pet is in danger of serious problems or you can expect some mild stomach upset. Treatment might include inducing vomiting, activated charcoal to absorb the theobromine, IV fluids, and/or anti-seizure or anti-arrhythmia medication if needed.
This really is a case where prevention is the best medicine! While a large dog is probably going to be fine eating a few small milk chocolate candies, it does not take much of the darker chocolates to be very dangerous for dogs of any size. Besides, don’t you want to keep your Easter bunnies all to yourself?!
Karen Christopherson DVM CVA