As full service hospitals, we often experience a variety of toxin ingestion calls and appointments. From apple seeds to coffee beans to onions, our talented team has treated plenty of cats and dogs for eating things they aren’t supposed to. Due to its popularity with moms and dads all over New York City, there is one “no-no” food we tend to intercept most often…chocolate. It seems cruel that one of the most revered human treats is strictly prohibited for pets, but there are plenty of valid reasons behind it. To shed more light on the topic, Lower East Side Animal Hospital’s Dr. Sara Fracapane is on the case.
What exactly is “Chocolate Toxcity“?
Dr. Fracapane: Chocolate Toxicity is any of the signs that result from an overdose of the theobromine and caffeine contained in chocolate. At lower doses, we might expect to see gastrointestinal signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. As the dose gets higher, we start getting concerned about the cardiac effects such as high heart rate and abnormal heart beats (arrhythmias), which require much more aggressive intervention. At even higher doses we can see neurologic symptoms such as seizures and coma.
Dr. Fracapane: If the chocolate ingestion is recent (usually within about two hours) we safely induce supervised vomiting at the hospital to try to get some of the chocolate material out of the stomach. This not only lowers the chance of our pets showing any of the symptoms of chocolate toxicity hours later, but it is also a great opportunity to get any wrappers or foil out of the stomach, since dogs tend to be fairly indiscriminate about eating whatever paper, foil or plastic the chocolate comes in! We typically follow that up with medications to stop the vomiting and then activated charcoal to bind to any residual chocolate that didn’t come up from the stomach.
Most people are aware that chocolate is bad for dogs, but many don’t realize that at high enough doses we see more than just vomiting and diarrhea, we can actually see dangerously high heart rates and abnormal heart beats. Because of this, one of the first things we do is to get a heart rate to make sure we aren’t seeing any of those more serious signs.
Why should owners bring in wrappers, packaging and brand information of the chocolate that was ingested? Isn’t it all the same?
Dr. Fracapane: All chocolate was not created equal. The class of compounds that make chocolate dangerous for pets are called “methylxanthines.” The two methylxanthines in chocolate that cause toxic effects are “theobromine” and “caffeine,” both of which are contained in varying quantities in baking chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, etc. Methylxanthines are much more concentrated in baker’s chocolate than your typical milk chocolate products, and because there is such a huge variation it is very important for us to know not only how much chocolate your pet ate, but what TYPE. The amount of milk chocolate that may cause only mild gastrointestinal signs may cause very severe signs if the same amount was given in dark chocolate form.
Dr. Fracapane: That’s a loaded question. It’s difficult to answer because the amount of chocolate that is considered toxic varies so much between chocolate products. A certain amount of milk chocolate may cause only mild gastrointestinal upset, but that same amount of dark or baker’s chocolate may cause a high heart rate, irregular heart rate and seizures in the same dog. Because there is so much variation, always call your veterinarian to see if there is cause for concern. If your veterinarian’s office is not open, you can call the ASPCA poison control hotline. The hotline is open for calls 24/7 and is operated by doctors that specialize in toxicity cases. The number is 888-426-4435.
What if my pet isn’t symptomatic? Should I still bring them in to see a veterinarian?
Dr. Fracapane: Unless you can be sure that your pooch only ate two chocolate chips, it is best to see a veterinarian. It may take six hours or longer for pets to start showing signs of chocolate toxicity, and by the time they start showing signs they may be much sicker than they appear.
As a chocolate lover, I can’t imagine not having it in the house. How can I prevent my dog from getting a hold of it?
Dr. Fracapane: We all know the stories of food-motivated dogs that will rearrange kitchen chairs in order to reach the food cabinets, but assuming your pooch does not have a PhD; just keeping the chocolate out of reach will be enough to keep them safe. Use higher cabinets to store your food, and make sure your brownie pans and chocolate chip cookie trays are placed on high countertops or locked away. For any lower cabinets, if you’ve got a smart dog you may want to look into child locks.
If you are concerned that your pet may have ingested chocolate, or any other questionable items, don’t hesitate to call. The teams at Lower East Side and Heart of Chelsea Animal Hospitals are here to help our neighbors and the pets that mean so much to them <3
Heart of Chelsea and Lower East Side Animal Hospital
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