It is perfectly all right to give your pet table scraps from time to time. The meaty, skinless portion of Thanksgiving turkey, the de-seeded flesh of watermelons, a de-cored and de-seeded apple, or even a whole piece of ripe banana can all be given to our pets, all in moderation. However, when it comes to chocolates, no matter how pitiful your dog looks with its sad look and woeful cries, don’t ever give in to the temptation of giving your pooch even a small piece of your dark chocolate – especially dark chocolate! That one small bite may just all your dog needs to say goodbye in this world. So, to answer the question whether dogs can eat chocolate, the straightforward answer is “no”.
Theobromine: The Culprit
Chocolates contain theobromine, a substance that is derived from the cacao plant. It is theobromine that gives chocolate its almost caffeine-like bitterness. In fact, caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine all belong to the same class of xanthine alkaloids producing a strikingly similar effect. However, since chocolates are mostly synthesized from cacao plants, its main composition is theobromine, with caffeine mainly associated with the coffee bean plant.
Theobromine has three fundamental physiologic actions:
- Increase the heart rate
- Increase the diameter of the blood vessels
- Increase urination
Essentially, what theobromine does is that it reduces blood pressure by a combination of these 3 mechanisms. By increasing the diameter of blood vessels, the pressure against the walls of these blood vessels is effectively reduced. The reduction in blood pressure typically slows down the movement of blood through the arteries and veins. This leads to an increase in blood volume in these blood vessels. To compensate and help prevent the possible rise of blood pressure caused by the increase in blood volume, the kidneys will have to increase its production of urine. This removes some of the water found in the blood leading to a reduction in blood volume. Because the blood volume is reduced, the heart will have to contract faster to compensate. It is this tight balancing act that theobromine works.
It should be beneficial. Unfortunately, dogs metabolize or process theobromine a lot slower than we do. More specifically, dogs don’t have the necessary enzyme systems needed for the effective metabolism of the substance. Because of this, theobromine actually lingers in the canine body for a much longer period of time. The canine liver is simply not built for the effective metabolism of theobromine. This leads to a host of signs and symptoms that you should also learn to recognize.
Signs and Symptoms of Chocolate Toxicity
Theobromine is the major culprit in the toxic effects brought about by chocolates. If your pet happens to ingest one of these sweet treats, it is possible that it will show any of the following clinical manifestations:
- Restlessness or too much energy
- Excessive panting or pacing
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Extreme thirst
- Hyperexcitability of the reflexes
- Increased body temperature
- Tremors or shaking
- Abnormal or elevated heart rate
- Very rapid but shallow breathing
- Unusually low blood pressure
- Increased frequency and amount of urination
Majority of these manifestations are the direct result of theobromine’s stimulant effects as well as vasodilator and diuretic properties. A few of these come as complications of initial manifestations. In severe cases, death can ensue in a matter of hours often brought about by hypovolemic shock. This is the result of an abnormally low blood pressure that it can no longer support life. Because oxygen is not delivered to the vital organs, this leads to multi-organ system failure.
Not All Chocolates are Created Equal
The good thing is that, like everything else, not all dark and sinfully sweet choco treats are created equal. Since the major culprit in such toxicities is theobromine, then consuming less of this substance should provide your pooch some degree of hope.
Theobromine is found in cacao plants. Unfortunately, we don’t eat it as is. These are harvested and processed into a variety of choco products that we are now familiar with and which we are often tempted on sharing with our pets.
Here’s the thing. Different kinds of chocolates contain different levels of theobromine. While you may have the option to memorize the figures below, a good rule of thumb is that the darker the choco product, the more concentrated is its theobromine content; hence, it is a lot more toxic than one that is light-colored or somewhere in between. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, consider the following levels of theobromine for the following choco products.
- 1 cup of dry and unsweetened cocoa powder, alkali-processed = 2,266 milligrams
- 1 cup of dry and unsweetened cocoa powder = 1,769 milligrams
- 1 cup of unsweetened baker’s chocolate = 1,712 milligrams
- 1 bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cacao extracts = 810 milligrams
- 1 cup of M&M’s peanuts = 184 milligrams
- 55 ounces of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar = 64 milligrams
- 1 bar KitKat Wafer = 48.7 milligrams
- 1 bar Milky Way = 37.1 milligrams
As you can see, the darker or the more bitter the chocolate, the greater is its theobromine content. Compare a cup of your unsweetened baker’s chocolate with a cup of M&M’s and you can see the obvious difference. Baker’s chocolate comes in at a whopping 1712 milligrams per cup while M&M only registers 184 milligrams.
So, how can you use this information?
Understand that the median lethal dose of theobromine in dogs is currently formulated at 300 milligrams per kilogram of the dog’s body weight. This is a reflection of the amount of theobromine dose that 50% of all dogs will die because of toxicity. For example, if your dog weighs 20 pounds, then that means its median lethal dose will be 6,000 milligrams or about 6 grams. This is roughly equivalent to about 3.5 cups of the unsweetened baker’s chocolate or about 33 cups of your M&M’s Peanuts. Of course, other factors may have to be considered such as the overall health of your dog’s liver as well as any other existing medical condition that may exacerbate the effects of theobromine. That said, if your pooch is also on certain medications that can have an additive effect on theobromine, its toxicity may increase significantly.
Another thing that you need to understand is that theobromine typically has a plasma half-life in dogs of about 17 hours. This is the amount of time it would take for the dose of the substance to be reduced in half. So, if your pooch accidentally consumed a chocolate bar that contains 100 milligrams of theobromine, it would take 17 hours before the theobromine levels in the blood reach 50 milligrams. Wait another 17 hours and the dose will already be reduced to 25 milligrams. Another 17 hours and the dose will only be 12.5 milligrams. In other words, after about 7 days of ingesting the 100 milligrams of theobromine, your dog will still have about 0.78 milligrams of the substance left in its body.
So, if you do decide to share your pooch one of your milk chocolates, be sure to understand the estimated theobromine content of what you’re giving and make appropriate calculations as to the amount of time needed by your dog to clear the substance.
What to Do if Your Pooch Ate Chocolate
Based on what we have been discussing above, it is clear that white chocolates pose less threat to dogs compared to darker varieties. However, this should not be interpreted as a go-signal to giving our pooches these sweet treats wantonly. As there may be instances when our dogs will simply develop toxicity to what they have consumed, it is important to know what to do.
- Whatever you do, if you think your pet has had too much of chocolates, don’t wait for the clinical manifestations we have shared above. Immediately call your veterinarian so he can guide you properly on what to do. Generally, depending on the type and amount of chocolate consumed and the age and size of your pet, your vet may recommend monitoring your dog, giving an emetic, or bring your pet to the clinic.
- If your pet has only ingested the chocolate in the last 2 hours, you may be advised to initiate your first aid plan by giving it hydrogen peroxide. You should give about a tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide for every 20 pounds of its body weight. Typically, however, dogs will vomit the substance on their own.
- If your pet is vomiting, withhold anything and everything by mouth, including water.
- If you do bring your dog to the clinic, your vet will induce vomiting by flushing activated charcoal into its tummy. Supplemental IV fluids may also be administered to help replenish the fluid and electrolytes lost during induced vomiting.
- If your pet is already showing seizures, careful monitoring is required at the veterinary clinic.
It is very tempting to give our pets that delicious bar of milk chocolate, even a small piece of it. Unfortunately, whether it’s dark chocolate or white chocolate, it still contains theobromine that may have an entirely different effect on your dog. Better be safe now than be sorry later.