Americans consume an average of 10 pounds of chocolate per year, which totals more than three billion pounds! With so much chocolate around, it is no surprise that chocolate ingestion is one of the top four reasons pet owners call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Hotline. More than 24,000 people call this hotline for chocolate-related pet incidences every year, and the number of calls per day increases significantly during the holidays. Dogs represent 95% of pets who ingest chocolate, because cats are not usually attracted to sweets. At Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital, we want you to know why chocolate is dangerous for your four-legged friends, what to watch out for, and what to do if your pet raids your chocolate supply.

Why is chocolate toxic to pets?

Chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, which belong to a group of compounds known as methylxanthines. Humans can easily digest and excrete methylxanthines in a few hours, but these compounds take more than six times as long to move through your pet, and high levels accumulate in their system. Depending on the type and amount consumed, a pet who eats chocolate can suffer serious health consequences.

What are chocolate toxicity signs in a pet?

Theobromine and caffeine in chocolate affect your pet’s nervous and respiratory systems, heart, and urinary tract. Chocolate digests fairly slowly, so toxicity signs can appear between 6 to 24 hours after ingestion, and take up to four days to resolve. Chocolate toxicity signs in pets include: 

  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Hyperactivity and hyperirritability
  • Excessive panting
  • Unsteady gait
  • Muscle twitching
  • Rigidity or seizures
  • Heart rhythm disturbances
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Increased body temperature
  • Aspiration pneumonia from vomiting
  • Pancreatitis
  • Death in severe cases

How much chocolate is toxic to pets?

Not all chocolate is equally toxic—the darker and more bitter the chocolate, the more dangerous. Chocolate treats combined with raisins, macadamia nuts, xylitol, or marijuana have additional toxic concerns. Gastrointestinal problems, such as intestinal blockages from candy wrappers or pancreatitis from the sudden ingestion of fat in chocolate treats, can become secondary problems. Beware of outdoor cocoa mulch, which is also toxic to pets, and can cause intestinal blockages. 

The following estimates from an online veterinary chocolate toxicity calculator assume the chocolate-eater is a 20-pound dog. The chocolate types are listed in order of increasing toxicity, and you can see it doesn’t take much to make this imaginary dog ill.

  • White chocolate — Not toxic, but the high fat content can cause pancreatitis
  • Milk chocolate — Three ounces
  • Dark and semi-sweet chocolate — One and one quarter ounces
  • Cocoa mulch — Three-quarters of an ounce
  • Baker’s chocolate — Half an ounce
  • Baking cocoa — Less than one quarter of an ounce

How is a pet treated for chocolate toxicity?

If your pet consumed a toxic dose of chocolate in the past few hours, but is not showing neurologic or cardiac signs, we will immediately administer medication to stimulate vomiting. Eliminating chocolate prior to digestion makes treatment much more effective. Afterward, we can give them oral-activated charcoal to bind with any remaining toxic compounds in their gastrointestinal tract. If your pet is showing neurologic or cardiac signs, our first step is administering medications to stabilize their condition. Inducing vomiting may be unsafe and ineffective at this stage, because the chocolate has already metabolized in your pet’s system. Baseline lab work is recommended to check for electrolyte abnormalities or other negative effects from chocolate ingestion. Your pet may require hospitalization and intravenous fluid therapy to flush the toxins out of their system, and will urinate frequently to avoid caffeine reabsorption through the bladder.

The prognosis for pets who eat chocolate depends on the type and amount ingested, and if they are showing toxicity signs when they are examined. With appropriate, aggressive treatment, most animals will fully recover. 

What should I do if my pet has eaten chocolate?

Call the Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital team immediately if you suspect your pet has eaten chocolate. If this occurs after hours, call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center or Pet Poison Hotline to help assess the situation. Your answers to these questions will determine if your pet has consumed a toxic chocolate dose and needs immediate veterinary care:

  • When did your pet eat chocolate?
  • What type of chocolate did they eat?
  • How much chocolate did they eat?
  • How large is your pet?
  • What toxicity signs is your pet showing? 

Preventing chocolate toxicity is much easier than treatment. Ensure that chocolate treats are kept out of your pet’s reach, keep our number handy, and don’t hesitate to contact us at Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital if you have questions or concerns about your pet possibly ingesting chocolate.