Because dogs and cats metabolize some drugs and foods differently than people, they can be poisoned by products that are harmless to us. The most well-known example is chocolate, which many of us consider a necessity and have readily available in our homes. Chocolate is toxic to many species, but dogs are most commonly affected, because they tend to eat things without much thought, compared with notoriously picky cats. 

Chocolate toxicity affects each pet differently, according to their size and individual sensitivity—but can be serious enough to result in coma or death. To keep your pet safe from a potentially deadly chocolate toxicity, the Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital team shares how to recognize, treat, and avoid this all-too-common unfortunate scenario.

What makes chocolate toxic to pets?

Chocolate contains two compounds that pets cannot metabolize well—theobromine and caffeine. Theobromine is present in chocolate in higher amounts than caffeine, but the total amount of these compounds (i.e., methylxanthines) determines the chocolate’s toxicity—the darker the chocolate, the more toxic. In addition to chocolate, cocoa bean hulls, which also contain methylxanthines, can be used in garden mulch and consumed by unknowing dogs. Here is a list of chocolate types, from most to least toxic:

  • Cocoa powder
  • Baker’s chocolate
  • Cocoa bean hulls
  • Dark chocolate
  • Milk chocolate
  • White chocolate

Toxicity in pets is dose dependent, meaning small amounts are less toxic than large amounts. Dose is calculated based on your pet’s weight and the estimated amount of methylxanthines consumed. A small pet who consumes a large amount will likely have a severe toxicity, but a large pet who eats a small amount is less likely to experience any problems. 

Pet chocolate toxicity signs

Methylxanthines act as a stimulant, affecting your pet’s heart and nervous system. A mild toxicity usually causes only stomach upset, but a moderate or severe exposure can result in serious consequences, or death. Some pets are more sensitive or consume multiple other toxins with the chocolate (e.g., raisins, chocolate chips in trail mix), resulting in worse-than-expected outcomes. Possible chocolate toxicity signs include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Agitation
  • Increased drinking and urinating
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Tremors or seizures
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • High blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Coma
  • Death

Pet chocolate toxicity treatment

Treatment depends on the time when the pet consumed the chocolate, and the amount they consumed. Mild exposures may not require treatment, while pets with moderate or severe exposures will first need as much chocolate as possible removed, and then supportive treatment for the next 24 to 72 hours. Treatments may include:

  • Vomit induction — Drugs to induce vomiting are used in pets who ate chocolate recently but are not yet showing signs.
  • Activated charcoal — Activated charcoal can bind to residual chocolate toxins in the stomach and intestines to be removed before they are absorbed.
  • IV fluids — Fluids can help to flush toxins from the body more quickly and correct electrolyte imbalances to support proper heart rhythm.
  • Medications — Medications can reduce nausea, stabilize heart rhythm, and counteract seizures or tremors. In severe, uncontrollable seizures, drugs that induce and maintain anesthesia may be used.
  • Hospitalization — Because toxins can be recirculated and reabsorbed for up to several days after ingestion, pets are closely monitored for changes in their condition.

Pet chocolate toxicity prevention

Toxicity can be prevented by closely monitoring what we feed our pets and restricting access to potentially toxic chocolate. This includes securing baking supplies in high, inaccessible locations, securing cabinets or drawers with baby latches if needed, and keeping pets out of the kitchen while you are away. Never leave chocolate unattended on the countertop, and don’t let kids store candy in their bedrooms. 

If you believe your pet has eaten chocolate, contact our team, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, or the Pet Poison Helpline immediately. Save all wrappers and remains of ingested chocolate. Be prepared to share details about your pet, including how much chocolate they consumed, the chocolate type, your pet’s weight, when your pet ate the chocolate, and any underlying medical conditions. A veterinary or poison control professional can quickly calculate whether your pet needs medical attention. If you do not know how much chocolate your pet ate, or they are already showing toxicity signs, head straight to the nearest veterinary emergency facility.

The Mount Pleasant Animal Hospital team is always available to assist if your pet has an emergency, such as chocolate toxicity, during regular business hours. Visit Animal Hospitals of the Lowcountry to learn about our other area veterinary hospitals, and experience the difference that a family-owned business can make.