What should you do next, and why is chocolate toxic for dogs?
You can feel your heart plummet straight from its cushioned home inside of your chest right out the soles of your feet. You’ve just watched your dog’s nose disappear from the edge of the counter preceded momentarily by the last piece of cake you’d laid out for your guests.
You start to hurry towards the other end of the counter, but you know that by the time you arrive it will be too late.
Your pup stares at you innocently, as if asking, “What cake?”
This wouldn’t have been an issue if you hadn’t made your world-renowned German double chocolate cake.
Your mind races through the myriad alternate realities where you would have been able to prevent this from happening until depositing you back into the unfortunate situation that is all too common for dog owners. So, what should you do next?
The situation described above is familiar to many who have owned dogs before. Unfortunately, it always seems to happen during celebrations. Whether it be a birthday with chocolate cake or a holiday such as Christmas or Valentine’s Day, it makes you put the whole party on hold.
There are a number of chocolate toxicity calculators available online that can be helpful for determining whether you need to immediately pack your pup up and head to the nearest emergency vet or whether you can just monitor them at home.
Once you’ve established that your dog ingested whatever contained the chocolate, it is prudent to review what type and how much of the chocolate was ingested if possible. While this may not be your first thought after watching your dog eat something they shouldn’t, a few minutes of gathering this information will be immensely helpful to the veterinary team that eventually takes over caring for your canine friend.
The darker the chocolate, the more toxic it is. Furthermore, it is a dose-dependent toxicity, meaning that the lower the dose, the less toxicity you will experience. Cocoa powder is the most toxic form of chocolate to ingest and it becomes progressively less toxic from semi-sweet to milk chocolate, to white chocolates.
Metabolites (products of digestion) from chocolates are the culprits of the toxicity that dogs experience from it. The primary metabolites of concern for dogs are Theobromine and Caffeine which are both considered Methylxanthines. The amount of methylxanthines produced in the body is higher with the darker chocolates and lower with the lighter ones, like milk or white chocolate hence the difference in effect.
Methylxanthines affect various receptors in the central nervous system and can disrupt calcium regulation in muscle cells. The net result is increased activity in the central nervous system as well as excessive contraction in both skeletal and cardiac muscles.
This is what causes chocolate ingestion to be so dangerous. The excess excitement in the heart and brain can lead to arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats) and seizures which can further perpetuate problems by driving body temperature up and altering blood pressure. Furthermore, seizures and arrhythmias can be fatal on their own in some cases.
Interestingly, some dogs seem to be much more resistant to the effects of chocolate ingestion than others. This adds some variability to how your pet may react. That being said, the downsides of ignoring chocolate ingestion in the hopes that your dog will be okay far outweigh any downsides of taking your dog straight to the veterinarian.
So, that’s a taste (sorry) of the mechanism behind the toxicity of chocolate to dogs, but what can be done about it?
Since there are no specific antidotes for the toxic metabolites, the treatment primarily centers around decontamination. This generally includes induction of vomiting followed by activated charcoal administration. Charcoal helps prevent further absorption of toxins from the gut by binding them and trapping them within the intestinal tract until they are eliminated. The subsequent treatment depends on how much chocolate was ingested and how severely affected the pet is.
Hospitalization with intravenous fluids and anti-seizure therapy will be necessary for some pets. Since caffeine can be reabsorbed from the urine, placement of a urinary catheter may be necessary for severe toxicities as well.
Often, if the dose is small and it is caught early, patients will be monitored at home after decontamination. It is common to have diarrhea or stomach upset following chocolate ingestion so feeding a bland diet for a few days following ingestion is recommended.
To make things more complicated, chocolate is generally served in high fat and high sugar preparations (i.e. brownies or cake) and this can cause a secondary gastritis (irritation to the stomach) or pancreatitis because dogs are not well equipped to process such rich foods. These additional illnesses may prolong treatment duration or prompt additional monitoring at home.
Fortunately, the prognosis for chocolate ingestion is quite good, but it is important to recognize the situation and bring your dog to the vet quickly after ingestion of any substantial amount. Despite some dogs having seemingly very high tolerance to Methylxanthines, it is always recommended to seek veterinary attention or speak to a veterinary tele-consult service if you have that available in your area.
In nearly four years of practice, I have seen dozens of chocolate ingestions, and fortunately, they have all ended well for the pet and the owner. While many of us can’t seem to get enough chocolate into our diets, this is one food that we must resist the temptation to share with our pets. Dogs will be more than happy to chow down on chocolate, despite its high potential for toxicity to them. Thanks for reading!
This article is for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. If your pet ingests chocolate, you should consult with your veterinarian.