If you’re a dog lover, you undoubtedly have heard that chocolate can be deadly to dogs, but is that really true? Will the chocolate bar surreptitiously snagged off the kitchen counter by Fido end in his early demise — or is this an old wives tale?
In the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, the holiday maybe most associated with chocolate, let’s look at the veterinary science behind this claim.
The quick answer is YES. Yes, chocolate can a kill a dog.
Now the more nuanced answer, which may help you not panic if your dog wolfs down an unattended Hershey bar.
Chocolate poisoning is one of the most common causes of canine poisoning. Chocolate’s deadliness to pooches however depends on the size of the dog, how much chocolate was munched, the quality of that chocolate and whether it was milk, white or dark chocolate. Here is why:
Dark chocolate is more toxic to dogs than milk chocolate. A 20-pound dog can experience seizures after eating 9 ounces of milk chocolate, but can easily have the same scary symptoms with only 1.5 to 2 ounces of bakers’ chocolate. A 10-pound dog can have the same symptoms with one ounce of that same dark chocolate. Conversely, a hundred pound dog can eat 9 ounces of milk chocolate or 2 ounces of dark chocolate and not have symptoms. (This was the case with my neighbor’s beefy golden retriever recently.) But, symptoms or no symptoms, that chocolate is still toxic.
Higher quality chocolate (dark chocolate) has higher percentages of cacao and it is this cacao that delivers those positive benefits of chocolate consumption to humans. It’s also the methylxanthines (one of which is theobromine) that are deadly to dogs. Drugstore chocolate bars are usually of poorer quality with lots of fillers and are less dangerous to dogs than that $7 gourmet chocolate bar that is 80 percent cacao. The human body responds to theobromine as it does a light dose of caffeine and is metabolized by our bodies to half-levels in 6-10 hours, but dogs are not able to metabolize theobromine effectively and thus much greater pressure is put on a dog’s nervous system and kidneys. This is why pups that swallow chocolate often experience seizures, muscle tremors, incontinence and vomiting.
Dogs are also biologically feast or famine scavengers, so they do not have an off button. They will typically eat until whatever they are eating is gone — including all that chocolate leftover from Valentine’s Day if they can get their paws on it. This can easily translate to a dog wolfing down 10 percent of their body weight in chocolate in minutes. If humans consumed 10 percent of their body weight in chocolate this fast, they too would have toxicity symptoms, but we usually have an off button that prevents us from doing so. Plus, as noted above, our bodies are better able to metabolize the cacao we do eat.
White chocolate is not anywhere as dangerous to dogs as dark or milk chocolate since it is made with cocoa butter, which does not contain the same dangerous levels of theobromine. The fat and sugar, however, if consumed in large quantities, can still be detrimental to a dog’s pancreas.
The bottom line is that no matter what weight your dog is, chocolate is toxic to their system. Older dogs, puppies and dogs with other health issues are also more vulnerable. The symptoms of a toxic dose of chocolate begins within the first few hours after consumption — vomiting, diarrhea or hyperactivity. As time passes and more theobromine is absorbed, your dog’s heart rate will increase, which can cause arrhythmia, restlessness, hyperactivity, muscle twitching, increased urination and/or excessive panting. The third phase is muscle tremors, seizures, coma and even death.
If you suspect chocolate poisoning call or get your pup to the vet immediately. Typically, the treatment, if caught early, will be to induce vomiting. Some vets advise clients to give their pet a few teaspoons of hydrogen peroxide at home to induce vomiting (make sure you consult with your vet for the right amount based on your dog’s size). They may also suggest additional decontamination methods such as charcoal or stomach flushing. Worse case scenarios will require overnight hospitalization, fluids and medication.
Georgia veterinarian Michelle DeHaven recalls the most dramatic case of canine chocolate poisoning she ever saw. The owners of an eight-pound poodle decided to celebrate the dog’s birthday by giving him a pound of chocolate. Needless to say, the dog barely made it. “We had to treat the dog with fluids and anti-seizure medication for five days,” says DeHaven. “Every time we stopped the meds he would start seizing again. You wouldn’t feed a kid a pound of chocolate, but they fed it to a small dog.”
The moral of this story is to remember NO amount of chocolate is safe for dogs. No matter how charming those big brown begging eyes are, never share your love of chocolate with your dog. One little benign taste can make your dog crave chocolate and the next thing you know, a box of Valentine’s chocolates is missing off the counter. You can, however, let your pooch indulge safely in carob treats. He or she will likely never know the difference.
So how much chocolate is deadly for your dog? Consider the numbers on this reference chart provided by Dog Owners Digest.
- White chocolate: 200 ounces per pound of body weight. It takes 250 pounds of white chocolate to cause signs of poisoning in a 20-pound dog, 125 pounds for a 10-pound dog.
- Milk chocolate: 1 ounce per pound of body weight. Approximately one pound of milk chocolate is poisonous to a 20-pound dog; one-half pound for a 10-pound dog. The average chocolate bar contains 2 to 3 ounces of milk chocolate. It would take 2-3 candy bars to poison a 10 pound dog. Semi-sweet chocolate has a similar toxic level.
- Sweet cocoa: 0.3 ounces per pound of body weight. One-third of a pound of sweet cocoa is toxic to a 20-pound dog; 1/6 pound for a 10-pound dog.
- Baking chocolate: 0.1 ounce per pound body weight. Two one-ounce squares of bakers’ chocolate is toxic to a 20-pound dog; one ounce for a 10-pound dog.
The ASPCA highly encourages pet parents to be ready for chocolate poisoning since it is so common. The first-aid treatment is removal of the toxic agent as quickly as possible through induced vomiting or activated charcoal.
To induce vomiting, the handbook Help! The Quick Guide to First Aid for Your Dog, recommends using 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, one-to-two teaspoons by mouth every 15 minutes until vomiting occurs. Syrup of Ipecac (available at most pharmacies) can also be used — two to three teaspoons, but only once.
After vomiting, the handbook suggests orally giving your dog activated charcoal mixed with water to a slurry consistency. Use one teaspoon for dogs less than 25 pounds and 2 teaspoons for dogs over 25 pounds. One recommended brand of activated charcoal is Toxiban which is great at binding to many types of poisons and thus prevents their absorption into the bloodstream. Activated charcoal is also available at most pharmacies and can be used for humans as well.
A positive outcome is highly likely if the treatment is provided within 4-6 hours after ingestion. However, be aware that the toxic effects of chocolate can linger for up to 36 hours and if symptoms to do not subside within a few hours after treatment a vet visit may be necessary. Either way, do check-in with your vet for coaching on home treatments if you opt that route.
And the best news about not sharing your chocolate stash with your pooch? More for you!