Chocolate: Food of the Gods, But Not of the Dogs

Has your dog accidentally consumed chocolate? Know the symptoms and take action if necessary.

Food of the Gods?

Here we are only examining three main health concerns; for full information on how chocolate can affect your pet, consult your veterinarian. Whether these things occur and to what extent is determined by the amount the pet ate, the size of the pet, species of pet, prior health, and at what stage did you find out the pet had eaten the chocolate.   

Theobromine Poisoning

Theobromine is a bitter alkaloid found in chocolate and other foods, such as the leaves of the tea plant and the cola nut.  The name comes from the chocolate plant itself and is Latin for ‘food of the gods’. By itself, cacao is bitter enough to put off most animals, but chocolate sold in North America is very commonly combined with sweeteners and other additives that reduce the bitterness and make the product extremely palatable.

Like many other toxic substances, theobromine overdose is a matter of degree.  Humans may suffer from it as well as pets.  Humans, however, metabolize theobromine faster than a dog or cat.  We rarely suffer from theobromine poisoning, although it can happen if one consumes enough.  It only takes one ounce per pound of dog for an overdose to occur.  

Symptoms include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, uneven heartbeat, seizures, and increased urination.

Caffeine Poisoning

Caffeine poisoning is not as much of a concern when a pet eats chocolate, but it could be a factor in its illness. Chocolate-covered espresso beans, for example, could deliver a double whammy in both theobromine and caffeine poisoning.  Symptoms are like theobromine poisoning: vomiting, seizures, uneven heartbeat.  Caffeine-poisoned pets may also be restless and hyperactive.  

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas and can be brought on by high fat intake.  While mild attacks may only cause discomfort, serious attacks can cause damage to other organs and even the brain.  Acute pancreatitis can be triggered if a pet consumes a large amount of fat in a short period of time.  This is life-threatening, extremely painful, and expensive to alleviate.  Pancreatitis also usually appears several days after the fat was ingested, making it harder for owners to ascertain what is wrong.  Symptoms include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, lethargy, and abdominal pain.

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Beyond the Candy Bar

Other products made from cacao seeds may pose a risk to your pet.  Cocoa mulch is, as the name suggests, mulch made from cacao shells.  Over the years, there have been scattered reports of dogs dying from eating it.  It should be noted that manufacturers have come out with ‘theobromine-free’ cocoa mulch and that many people say that without sugar, pets don’t seem that interested in chowing down.

What Do I Do?

If your pet ingests chocolate, don’t panic.  Things to ask yourself:

  • What kind of chocolate did my pet eat?
  • How big is my pet (in pounds)?
  • How long was it since it ate the chocolate?
  • Are there any symptoms of poisoning?

For instance, if your pet ate white chocolate, you’re out an Easter Bunny, but you’re probably not out a dog, as white chocolate only contains trace amounts of both theobromine and caffeine.  You’ll want to carefully watch your dog for symptoms of pancreatitis, especially if it was a large Easter Bunny.

Milk chocolate might be similar, depending on the kind, since it has much less actual theobromine and caffeine than semi-sweet or dark chocolate.  Again, it depends.  Is it a thin veneer of chocolate over a nut and caramel mixture?  Probably not going to cause fatal problems.

Semi-sweet and dark chocolate are where we start to go from watch-them-closely to go-to-the-vet-do-not-pass-GO-do-not-collect-$200.  The more actual chocolate in the mix, the more likely it is to poison your pet.  Going to the vet before you notice symptoms is probably your best bet if the amount eaten is more than a few chocolate chips.  It’s easier for the vet to induce vomiting than it is for them to pump the dog’s stomach and administer IV fluids.

Of course, when in doubt and if you have any reason to be concerned, going to or calling the vet is always the best choice.  At the very least, you’ll get your mind put at rest. 

A Brief History of Cacao

Chocolate is made from the roasted and ground cacao seed, which is native to South America.  It is now cultivated all over the world where it will grow.  Originally prepared as a drink, chocolate has been consumed for 4000 years or more.  When it made its way to Europe in the 17th century, it quickly gained popularity – especially once sweeteners were added to it to abate the bitter taste of the unadulterated cacao seed.  

Julie MacTire is a writer and educator devoted to the world of dogs. She also writes a blog (shibainus.ca) about her adventures with her Shiba Inu, Tierce, and is a supporter of many pet welfare organizations.

References & Resources

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