Chocolate Poisoning

Halloween is coming up with all its time honored traditions. Little ghosts and gremlins will be ringing the doorbell asking for treats, the pumpkins will be carved and glowing on the front porch, and at some point in the evening you will turn around to find the dog standing amidst a pile of scattered candy and empty wrappers with a smear of chocolate on the carpet and a slightly green look on his face. At the veterinary office the next day we have the traditional answering of calls about chocolate eating dogs. (This tradition is also played out for Christmas and Easter.)

Most people know that chocolate is “poisonous” to dogs, but may not know the specifics. Does poisonous mean that they will drop dead within minutes of ingesting it, or does it mean that it will result in grumpy guts that will resolve within a few hours, or something in between?

The substance in chocolate that causes problems in dogs is called theobromine. It is the caffeine-like chemical that is what causes chocolate to me a mild stimulant to people. Dogs are much more sensitive to the effects of theobromine than people. The symptoms of chocolate toxicity in a dog start off as hyperactivity and can progress in the range of excitement to seizures and in extreme cases can lead to coma and death. There is no specific way to counteract the toxin, so affected dogs are given supportive care until they metabolize the theobromine and get it out of their system. Although this sounds like a very frightening array of symptoms it usually takes a very large dose of chocolate to cause any noticeable signs at all.

Different types of chocolate have very different levels of theobromine. Milk chocolate and baked goods have lots of other ingredients that significantly dilute the amount of actual chocolate in the product. Dark chocolates and higher quality chocolates have somewhat higher levels. Baking chocolate and cocoa powder have up to 200 times more theobromine than candy chocolates. In general the highest risk dogs are the puppies that are penned in the kitchen to keep them out of trouble that then get in to the cupboards and help themselves to the baking supplies.

For the most part dogs that are gorging on Halloween candy are less likely to suffer from chocolate toxicity than they are to suffer from what is fondly known in the veterinary community as “garbage gut”. One can usually expect a robust bout of vomiting and diarrhea after the rapid ingestion of all that candy, wrappers, and probably part of the bag as well. Once the system is purged most dogs feel much better, and as a bonus, your carpet cleaner is no longer lonely from sitting in the closet unused for months. If you have a very small dog who has eaten quite a bit of dark chocolate, or if any dog has eaten baking chocolate you may need to do something to prevent poisoning problems. Once the symptoms start it is too late to do much about the problem, so if there is any doubt it is always better to get the chocolate out of the system before it is absorbed. If you have concerns talk to your veterinarian about what to do.

In spite of the fact that chocolate toxicity is unlikely to cause severe problems for the family pets, there are some precautions that parents can probably see that they will need to take for the health and safety of all their family members. It only makes sense to meet the kids at the door when they are bringing home their bags of goodies and sort through them to pick out all the chocolate. Start with the good chocolate and eat it on the spot, followed by the snickers and milky ways just to make sure. The kids can keep the candy corns and lollipops. I know it is a sacrifice, but someone has to step up and do what is needed to protect the family.