The dangers of chocolate to dogs

White and Black English Bulldog

Image Credit: Well Pet Coach

We’re a nation of chocolate lovers — and there’s truly no better time to indulge in chocolatey delights than at Easter.

Because we consider chocolate to be a scrummy snack, it’s natural to want to share the love with our greatest love — our pets. But did you know that chocolate is dangerous for dogs? With pooches twice as likely to experience chocolate intoxication at Easter than any other time of the year, the grain-free pet food experts at Canagan outline the side-effects and what to do if you fear your companion is suffering, and instead offer healthier treat options you can share to show you care.1

Why does my dog want chocolate?

Our pups are blissfully unaware of the dangers chocolate poses and yet eager to get their paws on it, but why?

Firstly, dogs love sweet, sticky food. Add that rich, delicious smell into the mix and suddenly they’re savvy to the tempting treat in their midst! In short, chocolate appeals to dogs in the same way as it appeals to us. Secondly, dogs are highly attuned to our body language and behaviour. If they see you enjoying chocolate with a big smile on your face, or sharing the treat with loved ones, they may want in on the fun too.

Why is chocolate bad for dogs?

Chocolate is derived from the roasted seeds of ‘Theobroma Cacoa’ which contain a chemical called theobromine, along with caffeine. While humans can metabolise (or break down) these ingredients, dogs process them far more slowly, meaning they rise to toxic levels in a pup’s system. Theobromine is also harmful to humans, but we’re roughly five times more tolerant to this substance than our dogs are.2

Fancy forms of chocolate may contain other ingredients that are also dangerous for dogs — like dried fruit, nuts and alcohol — doubling their risk of becoming unwell.

What are the signs of chocolate poisoning?

The warning signs are vomiting and diarrhoea, and hopefully this may only be the extent of the damage if only a small amount is consumed.

If your companion has eaten lots of chocolate, they may seem excitable initially. However, because their bodies are unable to process theobromine quickly, they may experience an increased heart rate. Symptoms can escalate into muscle tremors, seizures and heart arrhythmias. In large enough amounts, chocolate consumption can cause permanent nerve or brain damage. Worse yet, it can prove lethal.

Sugar-free chocolate is no better, as it’s artificially sweetened with xylitol, which also contains potentially fatal compounds to our pups. Ingestion of xylitol can lead to a rapid drop in blood sugar levels, which can trigger liver failure in some dogs.

The following variants on chocolate can also cause damage:

  • Chocolate with nuts
    If your dog has consumed a nut-based chocolate, they’re more likely to suffer from tummy troubles such as vomiting and diarrhoea. Macadamia nuts and black walnuts are particularly harmful. Macadamias can cause your dog to appear weak, particularly in their hind limbs, so they look wobbly on their feet. Lethargy, vomiting, tremors and an increased body temperature are also common symptoms; these tend to appear within 12 hours but can last up to two days.
  • Chocolate with dried fruit
    Consuming raisins, currants and sultanas can lead to sickness, diarrhoea and potentially fatal kidney failure. Signs of kidney failure include urinating less frequently and increased thirst but may not emerge until 24 to 72 hours from consumption.
    It’s currently unclear why, and how much, dried fruit is poisonous. Some dogs have eaten large quantities of this fruit and shown no symptoms, whereas others have fallen unwell after very small amounts. But it’s better to be safe than sorry by keeping fruit-filled chocolate out of reach.
  • Chocolate infused with alcohol
    Chocolate shells infused with boozy fondants and tipsy truffles are popular at this time of year. However, if accidentally consumed, the ethanol in the alcohol will hit an animal’s bloodstream faster than humans. Just like us, they may seem drowsy and unsteady on their feet. In more severe cases, they can experience a dangerous drop in blood sugar and body temperature, with risk of seizures and respiratory failure.
  • White chocolate
    The darker the chocolate, the worse it is. However, while white chocolate may contain less theobromine, it’s highly fatty and can still cause your dog a stomach upset.
  • Consider the packaging, too
    The lovely foil wrappers protecting an Easter egg or little chocolates can also cause obstruction in the gut — with symptoms being vomiting, lethargy and constipation — which will likely require surgical intervention.

If you’re storing Easter eggs away in the lead-up to the special day, remember that dogs have a heightened sense of smell, so may sniff out surprises, tackling the box and tempting treats inside it. Perhaps your pup isn’t embarking on their own little Easter egg hunt but joining you on yours! Again, just be mindful if you and the family are foraging for treats. Your companions might just strike lucky!

How much chocolate can a dog eat?

Just like humans, every dog is different. It firstly depends on the type of chocolate, as this dictates the concentration of theobromine. Baking chocolate and cocoa powder are the worst culprits for high levels of theobromine, followed by bitter, dark chocolate.3 The size of your companion also plays a key role.

What do I do if my dog eats chocolate?

If your dog eats chocolate, it’s wise to take them to the vet immediately — even if they aren’t showing obvious or immediate symptoms. The vet will assess your dog’s size, ask about the type of chocolate eaten (e.g. dark or white, with or without nuts), how much was consumed and how long ago. They may induce vomiting to purge the chocolate from your pup’s system before it metabolises more dangerous chemicals. Acting fast will avoid upsetting outcomes — don’t worry, your dog can overcome theobromine toxicity. However, if your pup is showing more serious signs, surgery may be needed.

Which sweet treats can I give my dog?

As loving pet owners, we all want to spoil our companions. You may be familiar with ‘dog chocolate’ which is made from ‘carob’ — a brown powder that’s extracted from pods belonging to the carob tree. It doesn’t contain theobromine, so is non-toxic to dogs and the sweet flavour means they’ll struggle to tell the difference. Otherwise, why not treat them to a ‘pupcake’? These are cupcakes made especially for dogs, available in delicious flavours like banana and sweet potato and apple or game biscuit bakes.

Ultimately, it’s important that your dog enjoys a balanced lifestyle of a nutritious diet, complemented with plenty of exercise and play. It’s a lovely gesture to treat your pooch once in a while but always consider their weight. This Easter, involve your pet in the ‘eggs-itable’ seasonal fun, but save the chocolate treats for you and the family, so your companion stays a happy bunny!

References

  1. Noble P-J M, Newman J, Wyatt A M, Radford A D, Jones P H, 2017. Heightened risk of canine chocolate exposure at Christmas and Easter: https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/181/25/684
  2. Finlay F and Guiton S, 2005. Chocolate poisoning: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1215566/
  3. Wag Walking, 2020. Why dogs like chocolate: https://wagwalking.com/behavior/why-dogs-like-chocolate