Although dogs love to share everything with us, chocolate poisoning in dogs is a relatively common outcome when owners let their dogs eat chocolate.
Although chocolate is a tasty and harmless treat for humans, it contains two substances that are toxic to dogs: caffeine and theobromine.
These substances can have harmful effects on the nervous system, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal tract, and kidneys of dogs. At high levels, caffeine and theobromine can even be fatal.
So, what you should you do if your dog has eaten chocolate? Can you give it in safe amounts or what kind of treats for your dog can you give instead? Read on to learn more about this common canine toxicity.
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Can dogs eat chocolate?
No matter how adorably they beg, it’s important to resist the temptation to give your dog chocolate. Depending on your dog’s size and the type of chocolate that you give (some are more toxic than others), even a very small amount of chocolate can be fatal.
Instead of giving your dog chocolate, which can be toxic, stick to feeding high-quality dog treats. These treats are specifically developed to be both safe and tasty for dogs.
If you want to give your dog small amounts of human food, avoid chocolate and stick to human foods that are safe for dogs. Using appropriate treats can help you bond with your dog in a way that is safe for them.
Why is chocolate bad for dogs?
Chocolate contains two ingredients that are toxic to dogs: caffeine and theobromine. These two substances are chemically similar, and collectively referred to as methylxanthines.
When a dog eats chocolate, caffeine and theobromine are absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract and enter the bloodstream. When distributed throughout the body, these methylxanthines have a number of harmful impacts.
Caffeine and theobromine exert their most serious negative effects on the nervous system and the heart. They can also negatively affect the kidneys, muscles, and the gastrointestinal tract.
How much chocolate can a dog have before it's fatal?
The toxic dose of chocolate varies, depending on the dog’s size and the methylxanthine content of the chocolate. Unsweetened baker’s chocolate and semisweet chocolate, for example, contain far more caffeine and theobromine than milk chocolate.
For a five pound dog, just half an ounce of unsweetened baker’s chocolate could be fatal. An eighty pound Labrador Retriever, however, could likely survive the ingestion of twenty ounces of milk chocolate.
The risk of death associated with chocolate ingestion varies, depending on the dog’s weight, the quantity of chocolate ingested, and the type of chocolate ingested.
It’s important to remember that death isn’t the only risk associated with chocolate toxicity. Even if your dog has not consumed a fatal dose, they may still require medical treatment. The doses of chocolate that cause seizures are typically considered to be a fatal dose, for example, but seizures can be fatal without treatment.
Symptoms of chocolate poisoning in dogs
Because chocolate affects the nervous system, stomach, heart, kidneys, and muscles, the symptoms of chocolate toxicity reflect the effects of chocolate on these organs and systems.
In the early stages of toxicity, you may notice vomiting, restlessness, increased thirst, and a bloated appearance to the belly. These signs are often followed by increased excitability, increased urination, and muscle tremors. In severe cases, your dog may develop seizures, generalized muscle rigidity, excessive panting, and even a loss of consciousness.
On a veterinary exam, your veterinarian may also notice a heart arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm), increased blood pressure, and an elevated body temperature.
What to do if your dog eats chocolate
A veterinarian or veterinary technician can assess whether your dog’s chocolate ingestion is likely to have toxic effects, and determine whether your dog needs emergency treatment.
Treating chocolate poisoning in dogs
If your dog’s chocolate ingestion was very recent, your veterinarian will attempt to clear the chocolate from the gastrointestinal tract before it is absorbed.
This may involve inducing vomiting, or giving your dog activated charcoal that will bind to chocolate and prevent its absorption. Your veterinarian may also perform gastric lavage, or “pump the stomach,” to further reduce chocolate absorption.
Treatment of chocolate toxicity is supportive in nature. There is no antidote for chocolate toxicity. Instead, your veterinarian will give your dog intravenous fluids to flush caffeine and theobromine out of your dog’s circulation.
Medications will be given as needed, to control high blood pressure, seizures, muscle tremors, heart arrhythmias, vomiting, and hyperactivity.
How long does it take for chocolate to get out of a dog's system?
Signs of chocolate toxicity typically develop approximately four to six hours after ingestion, and the duration of your dog’s signs will largely depend on how much chocolate your dog ingested.
Caffeine is cleared from the system quickly, but theobromine is cleared from the circulation relatively slowly. Signs of chocolate toxicity will resolve once your dog’s blood levels of theobromine fall to normal levels. In dogs, blood theobromine levels fall by approximately 50% every 18 hours.
After 36 hours, your dog’s theobromine levels will be about a quarter of what they were at their peak. After three days (72 hours), your dog’s theobromine levels will be down to 6% of what they were at their peak.
Depending on your dog’s blood theobromine levels at their peak, the effects of chocolate toxicity resolve within one to four days.
Can a dog recover from chocolate poisoning?
Your dog’s prognosis will depend on the quantity and type of chocolate ingested, your dog’s size, and how promptly you seek veterinary care. With this information, your veterinarian should be able to provide you with a reasonably accurate idea of what to expect in your dog’s situation.
Dogs ingesting a very small amount of milk chocolate may experience only a brief period of vomiting and diarrhea. With appropriate supportive care (medications and fluid support) these dogs should not experience any significant or permanent effects.
However, dogs that ingest large amounts of methylxanthines or experience a significant treatment delay may not survive, even with aggressive treatment.
In order to avoid chocolate poisoning in dogs, it’s important to not let dogs eat chocolate. While the highest toxicity risks are associated with baker’s chocolate, semisweet chocolate, and other concentrated forms of chocolate, even milk chocolate can prove fatal, depending on the amount ingested.
If you suspect that your dog may have ingested chocolate, contact your veterinarian or an animal poison hotline immediately to determine what care your dog needs.
Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.
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