Watch out for those boxes of chocolate under the Christmas tree!

Written by Dr. Sarah Martin

Well, it is that time of year… for vet clinics it is the time of year for the phone call, “my dog got under the tree and ate 3 boxes of chocolates, what should I do?”

Yikes! Most pet owners know that chocolate is toxic—but what happens? Why? What should you do if it happens?

Dogs are thought to be more sensitive to the theobromine and caffeine found in chocolate due to differences in metabolism and how long it lasts in their system. Dogs also will eat a lot of chocolate in one sitting if they can! Signs of toxicity include vomiting, diarrhea, excessive drinking and urinating, ataxia (walking ‘drunk’), heart rhythym abnormalities, hyperexcitability, seizures and even death.

It depends on the chocolate and it depends on the dose.

Toxic doses of theobromine are 9 mg per pound of dog for mild signs, up to 18 mg per pound of dog for severe signs. Milk chocolate contains 44 mg / ounce of theobromine while semisweet chocolate contains 150 mg per ounce, and baking chocolate contains 390 mg per ounce.

So what does that mean?  A 50 pound dog can eat 10 ounces of milk chocolate before signs of toxicity start to show. An average Pot O Gold box is about 10 ounces. A regular Hershey bar is 1.55 ounces. So you can see a fairly big dog can handle some milk chocolate – this is because milk chocolate has less theobromine content (and less caffeine content). The same 50 lb dog would show severe signs with 2 ounces of Baker’s chocolate! And some cocoa has an even higher concentration of theobromine! A 10 lb dog can probably safely ingest only 1 ounce of milk chocolate – size matters!!

It takes nearly four days for the effects of chocolate to work its way out of a dog’s system. If the chocolate was only just eaten, it is possible to induce vomiting; otherwise, hospitalization and support are needed until the chocolate has worked its way out of the system. Often once the toxic dose is approaching many of our dogs vomit on their own—but not all. We induce vomiting and give activated charcoal to bind what is left in their system over the following days. If the dose was approaching lethal dose then we will hospitalize the offending dog so we can control any seizure activity and heart irregularities/racing, muscle tremors, hyperexcitability.

What should you do if you come home and find wrappers as the only evidence?

CALL US!!  If we are closed at Park Road then our after hours clinic (Brant Norfolk) will take your call. We will want to know:

  1. The weight of your pet
  2. What they got into- keep the box/look at the label

Depending on how big your pet is and what they got into we may recommend that you either get to us immediately or induce vomiting immediately. At the clinic we can induce vomiting with an injection. At home (say you are too far away or there is a huge snow storm!) you can give hydrogen peroxide. Only the 3% concentration can be used, higher concentrations can result in severe gastritis. Hydrogen peroxide is ineffective in cats and not recommended. The dose is 1-5 ml/kg orally, never to exceed 50 ml. So a 10 lb dog would get about 2 tsp, a 50 lb dog would get about 2 tbsp. It usually works within 10 minutes and works best with some food is in their stomach, so try to feed your pet a little before giving it. They will not drink it on their own—a syringe or a turkey baster needs to be used. If the first dose is unsuccessful it can be repeated once. No more than 2 doses should be given at home.

If you are rushing into the clinic please bring :

Your pet, what they ate, any medications they are on and any veterinary information you may have.

The best idea is to never, ever, ever leave chocolate wrapped under the tree. Don’t let them into those stockings. We have even seen the rare lab get into cocoa after opening up the pantry door on his own!!

Merry Christmas and Safe Holidays!