Who doesn’t love chocolate? (Okay, so I know those people exist, but they’re strange to us chocoholics) No matter how you’re feeling, a quick piece of chocolate makes everything better. And it works for every holiday! You often share the tasty morsels with your family, friends, and significant others. But your beloved canine? That’s where you have to draw the line. Because dogs and chocolate are a BAD idea. Everyone knows that – it’s written in the New Puppy Manual. Chocolate’s right up there with onions, garlic, and grapes. But why can’t dogs eat chocolate? If you’ve ever held a lovely bonbon or truffle above enormous puppy eyes and found yourself wondering, we have the answer.
Chocolate starts from the humble cacao seed. And consumption dates all the way back to the 19th century B.C. (So if you adore it, you’re in good company) On their own, cacao seeds taste bitter. So they’re fermented, dried, roasted, and ground. Then the resulting seed mash gets heated into a chocolate liquor. Once the liquor cools, it’s processed into cocoa solids and cocoa butter. And voila! You have the basis for the delicious chocolate products we consume (usually with varying amounts of sugar added).
Obviously, sugar isn’t fantastic for dogs. But some of the darker chocolates (and baking chocolate) don’t contain much – if any. So why don’t dogs and chocolate mix? Two chemicals WE can process without a problem, but dogs CAN’T: theobromine and caffeine. And you find both of them in EVERY form of chocolate.
Theobromine and caffeine belong to the methylxanthine group. They’re stimulants that occur naturally in cacao, kola nuts, and tea. When they enter the bloodstream, they bind to adenosine receptors. Our body uses adenosine to put us to sleep. So if we have a bunch of methylxanthine in our system, we CAN’T fall asleep. And if you ingest tea, coffee, or a large amount of chocolate, you’ve probably noticed this.
Now, our bodies process theobromine and caffeine pretty well. Dogs? Not so much. Actually, their bodies do a terrible job. It can take SEVENTEEN HOURS for a dog to get rid of even HALF a dose of theobromine. That’s insane. And it’s too long for the chemicals to wreak havoc on their system. So dogs and chocolate? If left untreated, the chemicals can leave a dog’s body struggling for DAYS.
Dogs and Chocolate
When dogs ingest chocolate, theobromine and caffeine go to work within the first hour. You know how you feel after your first cup of coffee? Similar signs take place in your dog:
- Increased heart rate
- Nausea (don’t forget, they’re not meant to have that much sugar)
But the symptoms don’t stop there. As the chemicals stick around, things get worse. You start to see the REAL concerns of dogs and chocolate emerge:
- Increased thirst and urination
- Increased heart rate (dangerously high)
- Muscle tremoring
- Increased temperature
If you don’t get your dog to a veterinarian immediately, your dog CAN die from chocolate ingestion. Intervention is critical before the advanced signs set in. Remember, your dog’s body will struggle with the theobromine for almost ONE DAY. So “waiting and seeing” is NOT an option.
Dogs and Chocolate: Dose
I can hear the protests, though: you know a dog that ate chocolate without a problem. They didn’t even need to go to the vet. And that IS possible. Because dogs and chocolate? They’re dose-dependent. What that means is the amount of chocolate your dog eats AND the amount they weigh MATTERS. A giant breed dog that eats one M&M won’t have a problem. A tiny breed that eats a brownie WILL end up in the hospital. This is why when you call up a vet with chocolate concerns, they’ll always ask you three questions:
- How much does your dog weigh?
- How much chocolate did they eat?
- What kind of chocolate was it? (Which we’ll get to in a second)
Mild toxicity shows up at 20mg/kg of theobromine. (I know, I know – hardly anyone uses the metric system in the U.S., but that’s how things get calculated in the vet world) You only have to go up to 40mg/kg to reach severe signs. And seizures? They arrive at 60mg/kg. Having your dog’s weight and estimating how much they ate is vital in helping the vet understand where your dog falls on that line.
Does that mean you can leave chocolate lying around? Of course not. Dogs and chocolate are NEVER considered safe. But you may get to breathe easier when you hear your dog came out below that 20mg/kg threshold.
Dogs and Chocolate: Type
Does the TYPE of chocolate matter? You bet. Why? Because of those toxicity levels. Every chocolate contains a different amount of theobromine. Remember those three questions? Your vet asks them so they can reference a handy chart they keep near the phones. The chart lets them know whether your dog is safe or in real trouble. You CAN reference a handy calculator, too. (Please note: this is NOT a substitute for genuine veterinary guidance)
Here are some estimates of theobromine for the most common types of chocolate people keep around:
- White Chocolate: 0.25mg/oz. (almost 3 tablespoons of chips)
- Milk Chocolate: 44-60mg/oz. (a little less than 1 bar)
- Dark Chocolate: 135mg/oz. (5 individual squares)
- Baking Chocolate: 390-450mg/oz. (1 square)
- Cocoa Powder: 400-737mg/oz. (almost 4 tablespoons)
- Cacao Beans: 300-1500mg/oz.
Doesn’t take much to hit those levels, huh? When you start to consider your dog’s size, you may reach dangerous levels FAST. And while white chocolate scrapes the bottom for theobromine, it’s PACKED with sugar. Your dog won’t necessarily see toxic signs, but they WILL end up with GI upset – something you probably won’t appreciate. Dogs and chocolate get scary in no time.
Treating Chocolate Toxicity
Accidents happen. Easter baskets get left out. Stockings fall from the mantel. Valentine hearts stay in reach of curious noses. And dogs and chocolate meet. So what do you do in that situation?
You contact your veterinarian ASAP. Make sure you have the answers to those three questions. If you’re not sure about a weight or amount, try to get as close as you can. Look for packaging to provide ounces and chocolate types. (Especially if you’re dealing with the entire Valentine box of chocolate. And, yes, I’ve seen that happen – with the engagement ring hidden in the middle) You can also contact Animal Poison Control at 1-888-426-4435. They’ll ask you for the same information, and they’ll use the same chart.
When you get to the vet – depending on how long it’s been since your dog ate the chocolate – they’ll ask for permission to induce vomiting. Getting the theobromine OUT of your dog’s system is a priority. Your dog won’t enjoy the process, but it’s for the best. Afterward, they’ll administer activated charcoal. The charcoal binds with the chemicals, preventing them from entering the bloodstream. Some dogs like the taste; others don’t. Either way, if you have white carpets or furniture at home, you’ll want to keep your pup out of those rooms.
If your dog received a severe dose, they might need hospitalization for monitoring. This way, the vets can intervene with therapy, if necessary. Once your pup clears a 24-hour window without symptoms, they can go home. And they’ll do fine. It’d be nice if they learned to never go near any toxic sweets again, but dogs and chocolate don’t usually work that way. You’ll need to make sure YOU’RE vigilant.
No on the Cocoa
Dog owners have their lists of banned foods in the back of their minds. And they know dogs and chocolate don’t mix. But many aren’t familiar with WHY. The theobromine and caffeine are the culprits, and every type of chocolate comes with a different mixture. But you also need to consider how much your dog weighs AND how much they ate. It’s a complicated formula, but it’s one vets know and understand. They’ll get you and your pup through the crisis.
Really, though, if you can avoid your dog getting into those tasty treats in the first place? That’s your best bet.