The folks at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (ASPCA) Poison Control Center don’t need a calendar to know when it’s Christmas or Valentine’s Day. Their phones ring off the hook. Yet another pet — most likely a dog — has gotten into some chocolate.
“We actually have what we call a chocolate season,” explains Dr. Tina Wismer, a veterinary toxicologist for the ASPCA. “It runs from Halloween until Valentine’s Day. That’s when we get most of our chocolate-related calls.”
Last year, their center received 6,900 of these calls — 98% of them involving dogs.
“Dogs don’t have an off-switch,” she explains. “Most have a sweet tooth and will eat as much as they can. Cats, on the other hand, may nibble a bit but don’t gorge themselves like dogs will.”
Why is chocolate so dangerous?
“It contains stimulants similar to caffeine that can affect an animal’s central nervous and cardiovascular systems,” says Dr. Karl Jandrey, who teaches emergency and critical care at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “Unlike humans, dogs are unable to process these compounds.”
Chocolate poisoning can cause vomiting and diarrhea, heart arrhythmias, high heart rate, tremors, seizures, coma and even death. Fortunately, fatalities are rare; of the 13,400 chocolate-related calls received by the ASPCA in 2008 and 2009, only 12 resulted in death. All were dogs.
The risk associated with eating chocolate depends on the size of the animal and the type and amount of chocolate ingested. The darker the chocolate, the more toxic it is. For example, Wismer says a 40–lb dog would have to eat 1 lb of milk chocolate for it to be serious, compared to just ⅓ lb of the dark variety. In case you were wondering about white chocolate, that same healthy 40-lb dog would have to eat 61 lbs of white chocolate before a possible life-threatening problem arises!
“So, if your dog sneaks a chocolate chip cookie or a Hershey’s Kiss, there shouldn’t be a problem,” she says.
However, when Tinker Bell, a two-year-old Labrador in Fort Collins, Colo., devoured an entire chocolate cake (with chocolate fudge frosting, no less) earlier this year, a trip to the hospital was required. Tinker Bell’s veterinarian induced vomiting and administered charcoal to prevent her from absorbing the toxic stimulants.
“That’s the last birthday cake I’m leaving on the kitchen counter,” says Beau Dennis, Tinker Bell’s owner.
“If you suspect your pet has eaten an unsafe amount of chocolate, take him to the closest emergency clinic and be sure to bring the package and any of the remaining chocolate,” suggests Jandrey.
“Always keep your veterinarian’s phone number close,” adds Wismer. “If you have any questions or concerns, don’t ever hesitate to make that call.” You can also call the ASPCA’s Poison Control Center at 888/426-4435.