Chocolate has a dark side that has nothing to do with flavor. Every year, chocolate ingestion ranks in the top 10 most common pet toxins, according to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center and the Pet Poison Helpline. Chocolate’s sweet smell is as irresistible to pets as to people, but, unfortunately, the sweetness ends there. Pets can suffer from potential consequences far worse than blemishes or love handles.

As your trusted south Austin veterinarian, Oliver Animal Hospital wants to ensure your pet doesn’t become a victim to chocolate toxicosis by providing life-saving information on this potentially deadly treat. 

Why is chocolate so dangerous for pets?

Chocolate’s toxic nature is because of two substances known as methylxanthines, specifically caffeine and theobromine, which are absorbed through the small intestine, and then enter the circulation. Once in the bloodstream, they stimulate the central nervous system (i.e., the body’s command center—the brain, spinal cord, and nervous tissue) and the heart.

Pets who ingest chocolate in sufficient quantities can experience dangerous cardiac arrhythmias, tremors, seizures, coma, and death. 

Are some chocolates worse than others for pets?

While all chocolate is a pet health hazard, methylxanthine concentration varies by product. Common chocolates—by most to least toxic—include:

  • Dry cocoa powder
  • Unsweetened or bitter chocolate
  • Semi-sweet chocolate
  • Sweet dark chocolate
  • Milk chocolate
  • White chocolate

No matter the type of chocolate product ingested, your pet’s prognosis is also based on the quantity consumed, and your pet’s body weight. For example, milk chocolate’s lethal dose in pets can be as little as one ounce per pound of body weight, but for pets who are sensitive to methylxanthines, severe signs and death can occur at much lower doses, no matter the product they consumed. 

What are chocolate toxicosis signs in pets?

Chocolate toxicosis signs typically appear 6 to 12 hours after ingestion, and can vary depending on toxicity level. Common early signs may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased urination
  • Fever
  • Restlessness
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased heart rate

Pets with cardiotoxic or neurotoxic methylxanthine levels in their bloodstream may experience:

  • Collapse
  • Coma
  • Cyanosis (i.e., blue gums)
  • Abnormal heart rhythms 
  • Seizures
  • Death

What should I do if my pet eats chocolate?

If you know or suspect that your pet has consumed any chocolate, call Oliver Animal Hospital or the ASPCA Pet Poison Control right away for guidance. Do not wait until your pet is visibly sick, because rapid intervention may improve their prognosis. Be ready to provide your pet’s body weight, the chocolate type or brand name, and the quantity, so they can determine whether or not your pet needs veterinary attention. Never induce vomiting with hydrogen peroxide, unless directed by a veterinary professional. 

How is chocolate toxicosis diagnosed in pets?

Diagnosis is typically made based on your pet’s history, clinical signs, and physical examination findings, such as fever, elevated heart rate, and arrhythmia. If your pet is actively seizing, unconscious, or in respiratory distress, they will need emergency stabilization.

How is chocolate toxicosis treated in pets?

Chocolate ingestion treatment is focused on stabilizing the pet, minimizing clinical signs, and providing supportive care while the body recovers. If you know your pet consumed chocolate less than an hour prior to arrival at the veterinary hospital, a drug called apomorphine may be given to stimulate vomiting and empty the stomach. 

Pets with severe signs, or whose ingestion is beyond the one hour window, are commonly hospitalized for intensive care and monitoring. Because methylxanthines are absorbed in the small intestine and bladder, high-rate IV fluids are used to diurese or flush out the pet’s system, a urinary catheter is placed to continually drain the bladder, and activated charcoal is administered, to absorb any remaining chocolate in the pet’s stomach or intestines. 

Arrhythmias and central nervous system signs, as well as vomiting, diarrhea, and discomfort, are managed with medication. Pets are routinely monitored for changes in heart rhythm, blood work abnormalities, and temperature regulation.

How can chocolate toxicosis be prevented in pets?

Preventing chocolate toxicosis depends on responsible pet ownership. Pets who are not given the opportunity to consume chocolate won’t become sick. Pet owners should demonstrate extreme caution when baking, consuming, or displaying chocolate (e.g., for holiday decorations).

To ensure your pet’s health, without forgoing your favorite mini candy bars, take the following steps:

  • Ensure that everyone in the home, including children, knows not to feed chocolate to pets.
  • Take extra precautions around holidays, when candy and baked goods are in abundance.
  • Store all chocolate in closed containers, rather than open candy dishes or bowls. 
  • Keep baked goods away from the counter’s edge.
  • Keep chocolate baking ingredients, such as cocoa powder, chocolate chips, and chocolate bars, in overhead cabinets, or lidded containers.
  • Hang purses, backpacks, and lunch boxes on hooks, to keep out curious pet noses.

Understanding chocolate’s potency can lead to a new perspective on this adored dessert. On the bright side, however, the next time you hoard your favorite mini candy bars, you can honestly say it’s for your pet’s health. 

If your pet has ingested chocolate or is exhibiting toxicosis signs, contact your south Austin vet at Oliver Animal Hospital. For after-hours assistance, call the ASPCA Pet Poison Control, or the nearest emergency veterinary hospital.