Dogs may be attracted to chocolate due to its aroma or sweet taste and will often eat large quantities when available. Chocolate contains ingredients that can be dangerous to dogs, causing stomach upset, rapid heart rates and trembling, but rarely death.
Common name: Chocolate poisoning
Scientific names: Chocolate intoxication, Methylxanthine alkaloid intoxication.
All dogs may be tempted to eat chocolate if it is accessible.
There are increased numbers of exposures during times of the year when chocolate is readily found in households, such as during the Easter, Halloween, Christmas and Valentine's Day holidays.
No geographic distribution.
Clinical signs (primary, most to least frequent, scientific term, synonyms)
Vomiting, Increased heart rate (tachycardia), Hyperactivity, agitation, tremors, Increased thirst (polydipsia), Diarrhea.
Clinical signs (secondary, most to least frequent, scientific term, synonyms)
Depression or lethargy, Panting, Abdominal distension, Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
Cause (scientific, common term)
The methylxanthine alkaloids theobromine and caffeine, Organ systems affected (most to least affected), Gastrointestinal, Heart, Central nervous system.
ECG and blood pressure monitoring, Monitor electrolytes, Serum chemistry panel for pancreatic enzymes.
Pseudoephedrine, Amphetamines, Antihistamines, Cocaine.
Chocolate poisoning occurs frequently in dogs because chocolate is often available in large amounts and has a strong aroma and an apparently appealing taste. Chocolate contains the methylxanthine alkaloids theobromine and caffeine, which act as stimulants of the cardiovascular and central nervous systems. Chocolate products also have a high sugar and fat content, which can lead to digestive upset and occasionally inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
The potential stimulant effects of chocolate increase with the concentration of methylxanthine alkaloids. The darker in color the chocolate, the higher the methylxanthine content. As a result, unsweetened baking chocolate is much more toxic to dogs than milk chocolate or white chocolate. For example, only mild symptoms are expected when a 60-pound dog ingests 8 ounces of milk chocolate. If the same dog ingests 8 ounces of dark or baking chocolate, very serious symptoms are likely to occur. As a mater of fact, as little as 3 ounces of baking chocolate may cause life-threatening symptoms in the same 60-pound dog.
Dogs exposed to small amounts of chocolate may show mild symptoms of digestive upset and mild agitation. Dogs ingesting larger doses may develop hyperactivity progressing to tremors, a racing heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and even seizures and death in severe cases. For all cases of chocolate ingestion, the methylxanthine dose should be estimated based on the type of chocolate product and the body weight of the dog to determine if treatment is needed.
A veterinarian should be contacted to determine if the type and amount of chocolate a dog ingested is expected to cause mild or serious symptoms. If only mild symptoms are expected, dogs can be monitored at home.
Vomiting should be controlled by withholding food and water for 2 to 6 hours, then gradually reintroducing water, then food. In some cases of chocolate exposure, a veterinarian may instruct an owner to induce the dog to vomit at home to reduce the chocolate in the stomach and therefore the methylxanthines in the patient's bloodstream.
In significant exposures, dogs will need to be taken to a veterinarian. Decontamination procedures may be performed to limit the absorption of the methylxanthines into the dog's bloodstream. These procedures can include inducing vomiting, stomach lavage (stomach pumping) and the administration of liquid-activated charcoal.
The patient will be monitored for elevations in heart rate or blood pressure and the development of agitation, tremors and seizures. If abnormalities develop, they can be treated with medications to control the symptoms until the methylxanthines are eliminated from the body. If pancreatitis develops, the patient may need to be hospitalized for supportive care for multiple days.
A veterinarian should be consulted to determine if serious symptoms are expected based on the dose of chocolate ingested. In mild cases, the patient can be monitored at home. If the exposure is likely serious, the dog should be treated and monitored in a veterinary hospital.
With timely and appropriate treatment, dogs with chocolate poisoning are likely to fully recover.
Gwaltney-Brant, S. Chocolate intoxication. Veterinary Medicine 2001; 96: 108-111.
Albretsen, JA. Methylxanthines. In: Plumlee, KH, ed. Clinical Veterinary Toxicology. St. Louis: Mosby, Inc., 2004; 322-326.
Farbman, DB. Death by chocolate? Methylxanthine toxicosis. Veterinary Technician 2001; 22:146 - 147.
Camille DeClementi, VMD, DABVT, DABT
Steven Hansen, DVM, MS, MBA, DABVT, DABT
© 2007. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)