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Why Is Chocolate Bad For Dogs?


Although Americans eat a ton of chocolate each year (around 2.8 billion pounds or 11 pounds per person), other countries consume even more. Switzerland is the world's largest consumer of chocolate, eating 19.4 pounds per capita followed by Germany (17.8 pounds), Ireland (17.4 pounds), the United Kingdom (16.8 pounds), and Sweden (14.6 pounds). We know people love chocolate, but the delicious sweet treat is dangerous for our canine companions. So, exactly why is chocolate bad for dogs? Find out here.

Why Dog's Can't Eat Chocolate

Chocolate is toxic to dogs because it contains chemicals called methylxanthines - specifically caffeine and theobromine - that their bodies don't naturally process. Unlike humans, dogs metabolize these chemicals very slowly. This allows the toxicity to build up in their system and leads to increased sensitivity to the toxic effects. Caffeine and theobromine can have negative effects on the heart, muscles, kidneys and more. Some specific issues include increasing the heart rate, stimulating the nervous system, dilating blood vessels, acting as a diuretic, and causing tremors. According to MedicineNet, Denver veterinarian Kevin Fitzgerald says that “The buzz we get from eating chocolate may last 20 to 40 minutes, but for dogs it lasts many hours...After 17 hours, half of the theobromine a dog has ingested is still in the system.”

How sick a dog gets from eating chocolate will depend on a few factors:

  1. Their weight
  2. The type of chocolate consumed
  3. The amount of chocolate consumed

Which Chocolate Is Most Toxic?

All types of chocolate are toxic to dogs but some are more dangerous than others because they have higher concentrations of caffeine and theobromine. A general rule of thumb is that the darker and more bitter the chocolate, the more toxic - as dark chocolate contains more theobromine per ounce. Here is a ranking of chocolate from most to least toxic, according to PetMD:

  1. Cocoa powder (most toxic with 400-737 mg theobromine per ounce)
  2. Unsweetened baker’s chocolate (390-450 mg theobromine per ounce)
  3. Semisweet chocolate (150 mg theobromine per ounce)
  4. Dark chocolate (135 mg theobromine per ounce)
  5. Milk chocolate (44-60 mg theobromine per ounce)
  6. White chocolate (does not contain cocoa but does contain .25 mg theobromine per ounce)

So, the same dog that eats a smaller amount of dark chocolate will likely experience more severe signs if they ate larger amount of milk chocolate.

Signs Of Chocolate Poisoning

For some dogs, signs of chocolate toxicity can present within one to two hours while it can take several hours for others. They can also last between several hours to days. This is because of the lengthy half-life of theobromine that makes the chemical remain in your dog's bloodstream for long periods of time. Signs may include:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Panting or increased breathing rate
  • Increased or irregular heart rate
  • Muscle tremors
  • Increased thirst and/or urination
  • High body temperature
  • Restless, hyperactive or anxious behavior
  • Abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia
  • Muscle tremors
  • Collapsing (advanced sign)
  • Seizures (advanced sign)
  • Internal bleeding (advanced sign)
  • Heart attack (advanced sign)
  • Coma (advanced sign)
  • Death (rare) 

How A Dog's Weight Factors In

Your dog’s weight is an important factor. If two dogs eat the same amount and type of chocolate, but one is 10 pounds while the other is 50, the smaller dog will experience more severe signs. In general, a dog that consumes 20 mg methylxanthines per 2.2 pounds (one kilogram) of body weight will exhibit more mild signs of chocolate poisoning. Dogs that consume 40 to 50 mg per 2.2 pounds generally experience cardiac symptoms, while consuming more than 60 mg per 2.2 pounds results in seizures. In other words, one ounce of milk chocolate per pound of body weight can be dangerous.

What To Do If Your Dog Eats Chocolate

It's always recommended that you contact your vet if your dog has eaten chocolate. If your vet isn't available, contact a local emergency animal hospital or a Pet Poison Helpline (you can search the Internet to find several options). They will help determine if the amount ingested is toxic and what to do next. You can also calculate the level of toxicity in their system an online tool, such as Merck Veterinary Manual or PetMD. Either way, you'll need to provide important details including your dog's weight as well as the amount and type of chocolate consumed.

Pro Tip: Take a picture of the wrapper to ensure you have the correct type of chocolate when going to the vet.

What Is The Treatment For Chocolate Poisoning?

Treatment for chocolate poisoning involves decontamination and supportive medical care. The exact type of treatment will depend on the toxicity levels, how long the chocolate has been in your dog's system and the severity of their symptoms.

First step is to remove the chocolate from the system. If consumption occurred within an hour of talking to your vet, they may try to induce vomiting (or suggest you do so at home under their supervision). If it's been a few hours or you're unsure the exact time of chocolate consumption, your vet may use other means to try and clear the toxins. These include activated charcoal to prevent further absorption of toxins in the gut, a stomach tube to remove the toxin directly, or intravenous (IV) fluids to flush it out. This is all that's typically needed if your dog isn't showing signs of chocolate poisoning.

If your dog is showing symptoms, however, treatment will depend on what those are exactly. Often times, dogs will need to be hospitalized so they can be monitored continually. They might need IV fluids (to treat or prevent dehydration and provide cardiovascular support) and certain medications (such as anti-nausea, anti-diarrhea or anti-seizure).

All this being said, the general prognosis for dogs that consume chocolate is typically good if action is taken quickly and efficiently.

How To Prevent Your Dog From Eating Chocolate

The best way to prevent your dog from consuming chocolate is to make it inaccessible. You can keep chocolate out of reach in upper cabinets, top shelves of pantries or even in the refrigerator. Make sure to always keep cabinet and pantry doors closed and remove any chocolate from countertops, tables and purses. You can also store them in air tight containers that your dog can't get into.

Chocolate toxicity tends to rise during holidays (such as Halloween, Christmas, Hanukkah, Valentine's Day and Easter), so be extra attentive during the holiday season. Remind children and guests not to give your dog any chocolate (or table scraps and other human food, for that matter). Always watch children that have been given chocolate to ensure all of it is eaten, none is dropped and you can clean up anything that has been left behind.

Another option is to crate your dog (if they like their crate), which ensures your dog won't be able to get to anything dangerous. It's not possible to crate your dog all the time, so this method works best when you have guests visiting (especially children).

You can also teach your dog the "leave it" command to prevent them from eating something that falls on the ground. This is a relatively easy command to teach and is quite effective. To train your dog to "leave it," follow these steps:

  1. Put a dog treat in your fist (or on the floor, covered by your hand) and let your dog try to get it.
  2. Say "leave it" and when they stop, say "yes" or use a clicker and give praise.
  3. Then open your first and say "take it" or "go ahead," giving your dog the treat.
  4. Repeat this several times.
  5. Begin showing your dog the treat but giving a "leave it" command.
  6. Reward your dog when they successfully leave the treat. If they don't, cover up the treat before they can get it.
  7. Repeat this until your dog does it consistently, then begin waiting one to two seconds after saying "leave it."
  8. When your dog successfully leaves the treat and waits before taking the treat on your command, increase the amount of time after the "leave it" command.
  9. Repeat this several times.
  10. Continue to practice regularly as consistency is key to training a dog.

This should help in real life situations by preventing your dog from going for food that falls upon your "leave it," command and only going for food when given the cue they learned. 

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