By Christina Grant, DVM
Chocolate toxicity can occur year round but tends to be most prevalent when there is opportunity for exposure, especially during the holiday seasons such as Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. Severity of signs depends on the types of chocolate and amount ingested. Chocolate not only contains a high amount of fats and sugars but most importantly it’s by products contain something called Methylxanthines which are nervous system stimulants. A substance called Theobromine is the primary stimulant in chocolate, Caffeine being secondary. A lot of times a patients sensitivity to the Methylxanthines is based on their individual weight and amount (milligrams) of methylxanthines that are contained in the chocolate. Based on the amount of Methylxanthines, certain types of chocolates are more toxic than others.
Approximate Methylxanthine Content of Various Products*
Instant cocoa mix powder
Cocoa bean shell mulch
*Processed cocoa bean mulch is 54-849 mg/oz theobromine; 20-103 mg/oz caffeine.
Generally within a few hours of ingestion of a toxic amount of chocolate you may see signs of hyperactivity, tremors, panting and excessive urination. Heart rate and blood pressure levels may also be increased. In severe cases seizure activity may also occur. Due to the high fat content in the chocolate vomiting, diarrhea and pancreatitis may also develop.
Intensity of treatment is usually based on the amount of chocolate ingested, type of chocolate, approximate time since ingestion and severity of clinical signs.
If the chocolate ingestion was quickly identified (within a few hours) prior to the onset of clinical signs then your veterinary may recommend to induce vomiting and administering activated charcoal. Any remaining toxins in the gastrointestinal tract that have not yet been absorbed will attach to the charcoal and be eliminated during bowel movements.
If the patient is already showing clinical signs then hospitalization is recommended. If it has been several hours since ingestion then induction of vomiting may not be recommended as a majority of the chocolate has already passes out of the stomach. At this point activated charcoal may or may not be helpful. The patient is placed on intravenous fluids and further treatments are based on what clinical signs they are showing. Vomiting may be treated with anti-emetics. Tremors or seizures will be treated with anti-convulsants and muscle relaxers. In severe cases where patients have high heart rates or cardiac arrhythmias certain heart medications may be required. Medications to decrease blood pressure may also be utilized. Most hospitalized patients require continued monitoring anywhere from 8-12 hours but in severe cases up to 24-72 hours of treatment may be required.
Prognosis for full recovery is usually good when veterinary care is promptly received. If severe clinical signs are not quickly addressed prognosis is guarded to poor.
Keep chocolate containing products away from pets and avoid leaving chocolate containing gifts unsupervised (under Christmas trees, Easter baskets, Valentine’s Day gifts).
Keys to Remember
- The darker the chocolate, the more harmful it is to our pets.
- Dogs that are fed small amounts of chocolate may develop a taste for it and seek it out.
- If you suspect that your pet has eaten any type or amount of chocolate it is best to call a veterinarian for additional advice or call ASPCA Animal Poison Control at 888-426-6680 or Pet Poison Helpline at 800-213-6680.
About the author
Dr. Christina Grant was born and raised in Sacramento, California. She attended Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Alabama on both an academic and athletic scholarship where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science and conference championships in both soccer and softball.
Dr. Christina Grant attended Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine in Tuskegee, Alabama where she received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2009. She completed a rotating internship at the Veterinary Specialty Center of Tucson in Tucson, Arizona followed by a surgical internship at Sonora Veterinary Specialist in Phoenix, Arizona. Upon completion of her surgical internship she continued to work at Sonora as an emergency doctor for the last year and a half.
In her spare time she enjoy’s hiking, playing with her dogs, two pit bulls and a terrier mix (Tip, Trey and Casey). She also likes attending both sporting and live music events.
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