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“Mom Says Chocolate isn’t Good for Dogs…” The Truth Behind Cocoa and Our Fur Babies

It is always a good time to mention that chocolate is poisonous to dogs and cats. I have often heard people say that they don’t think animals will eat things that are poisonous, as they should know from some sort of instinct. This is completely untrue. In fact, some dogs like it so much they will hunt for it in your shopping bags or cupboards. And just because they’ve eaten it before and gotten sick from it, really does not mean that they won’t do it again in the future - they will. Cats, on the other hand, very rarely ingest chocolate.

SO WHY IS SOMETHING SO DELICIOUS ALSO POISONOUS FOR OUR PETS?

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the Theobroma Cacao plant. The main toxic components are the methylxanthine alkaloids called theobromine and caffeine.

Humans can easily digest and excrete methylxanthines after eating chocolate, with the half-life of theobromine being about 2 - 3 hours. By comparison, the half-life of theobromine in dogs is about 18 hours. Understanding this correctly would require an explanation of what the half-life of a chemical or drug is. What does ‘half-life’ mean? Half-life is a term used to describe the amount of time for a quantity to reduce its potency by half (50%). In this case, it is how long it takes for half the dose to be metabolised or eliminated from the bloodstream. Thus, one can see that a half-life of 18 hours (for dogs) is a long time.

THE NEXT QUESTION TO ADDRESS: WHAT DOES CHOCOLATE DO TO OUR DOGS?

The main systems affected by theobromine include the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system and the respiratory system. All three of these crucial systems need to function properly at all times. The initial signs seen with poisoning include vomiting and even sometimes vomiting of blood, and also excessive drinking of water. These signs are followed by hyperexcitable and hyperirritable behaviour. Increased heart rates, excessive panting, ataxia (walking as if drunk and wobbly) and muscle twitching can occur. Deterioration would lead to cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), seizures and death. The onset of initial signs of toxicity can be as quick as 2 hours from ingestion, but can also be slower, as theobromine is so slowly metabolised with such a long half-life, and it can take up to even 24 hours for signs to develop. This will then be followed by a slow, long recovery.

HOW MUCH CHOCOLATE WILL YOUR DOG NEED TO CONSUME FOR DEATH BY POISONING TO OCCUR?

It has been established that approximately 100-500 mg per kg of theobromine is lethal for dogs. But it is also very important to remember that not all chocolate is equally toxic as they contain varying amounts of theobromine. Basically, the higher the cocoa content the higher the theobromine content. For example, cocoa powder contains approximately 20 mg per g and dark chocolate contains 15 mg per g, in comparison to milk chocolate which has much less at 2 mg per g, and white chocolate has 0.1 mg per g. From this one can see how important it is to take the wrapper with you when you rush to the vet and also try to establish how much your pet might have eaten. 100g of plain chocolate can be lethal to a 10kg dog, but this is not the case with 100g of milk or white chocolate.

Other foods to be aware of for similar poisonings include chocolate cake mix and coffee beans or ground coffee (these can even be eaten in the compost heap).

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HOW DO WE TREAT CHOCOLATE POISONING IN DOGS?

Unfortunately, there is no specific antidote for theobromine poisoning, which means that like most toxicities, treatments it is mainly supportive and varies depending on the situation. It includes the initial induction of vomiting, the use of intravenous fluid therapy and the use of activated charcoal or oxygen if needed.

THE BEST TREATMENT

Always act quickly if your pet has eaten chocolate, call your vet and let them know you are coming, take the chocolate wrapper with you and don’t wait and see what happens, because if you get most of the chocolate out with the initial induction of vomiting, it means your furry friends body will not need to try to metabolise as much and recovery will be quicker.

As with most possible toxicities or poisonings, one has to treat and monitor response as opposed to monitor and then treat, often it may be too late. Thus, always err on the side of caution and be proactive rather than reactive.

Always remember, dogs love chocolate, but that doesn’t mean it's good for them, stick to healthy dog treats and never run the risk of toxicity. Also, teach your children that chocolate is not for sharing in this case, it will make man’s best friend very sick indeed.

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