I must confess, I am completely addicted to chocolate (well, not that white stuff) to the point I crave it every day. The comforting news is that I am not alone.
Did you know that 9 out of 10 people LOVE chocolate?
Plus, like me, about 50% of the population can't live without chocolate EVERY day!
The estimated yearly consumption of chocolate worldwide is at least 7.2 million metric tons – that is trillions of pounds!
So why do I mention all these statistics? To make a point of how likely it is that dogs are at risk of chocolate toxicity.
Chocolate is a huge part of life – for some of us more than others! But it is also important to realize it is present in more than just candy bars – cookies, pies, cakes, trail mix, etc. Regardless of the form, your dog will be tempted to try it and is at risk of toxicity.
Why Is Chocolate Toxic to Dogs?
So what about chocolate makes it so dangerous for our furry canine friends (and cats too!)?
Chocolate contains two methylxanthines compounds, theobromine (main toxin) and caffeine, which are both toxic to dogs.
Theobromine and caffeine can be used medically for humans as diuretics to dilate blood vessels, stimulate the heart, and as smooth-muscle relaxants. However, dogs are unable to metabolize theobromine and caffeine like humans can. The slow processing of theobromine and caffeine by dogs causes them to get built up in their system, causing illness.
Additionally, cocoa and chocolate can cause high blood pressure since they are very high in potassium.
Most chocolates, as well as the items they are contained in can be very high in fat. High-fat diets can trigger pancreatitis. Plus, foods that chocolate may be added to may contain additional toxins to dogs, like raisins, nuts, and more.
What Are Symptoms That My Dog Ate Chocolate?
The most common symptoms of chocolate toxicity include:
- Increased thirst
- Distended abdomen
Progressive symptoms that can occur with untreated or severe cases of chocolate toxicity include:
- Increased urination
- Abnormal walking
- Muscle tremors
- Increased heart rate or decreased heart rate
- Increased respiratory rate
- Increased blood pressure or potentially decreased
Cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), respiratory failure, or extreme elevation in body temperature can lead to death.
The symptoms typically occur within 6 to 12 hours after ingestion.
The type and severity of the symptoms will depend on the type and the amount of chocolate consumed. Additionally, a dog's size, individual sensitivity, and other health issues can affect the degree of toxicosis a dog may experience.
Chocolate products contain a high amount of fat. The high fat can trigger pancreatitis, which has similar symptoms to chocolate toxicity. This makes knowing the primary issue difficult. Since both conditions can be life-threatening and present at the same time, seek medical advice immediately.
What to Do If My Dog Ate Chocolate?
If you know your dog has just eaten chocolate, DON'T wait for symptoms to develop before calling for veterinary advice. Treatment is more complicated once symptoms develop. Call your veterinarian, an emergency animal hospital, or a poison hotline right away.
What actions you take will depend on what symptoms you notice after your dog has eaten chocolate. If your dog is exhibiting any of the progressive symptoms of toxicity (listed above), take them immediately to a veterinarian for treatment.
You will be asked how much your dog weighs, what type of chocolate, and how much you think your dog consumed. Be very detailed when describing any symptoms your dog is having. In order to know if your dog may have consumed a toxic dose, a useful guide is a chocolate toxicity calculator.
If you call a veterinary hospital or poison hotline, there are instances, based on the medical history you give, where you may be instructed by the veterinarian to induce vomiting at home. The main purpose of this is to prevent or lessen the side effects of the chocolate and other items ingested.
Generally, if vomiting can be successfully induced within 30 minutes of toxin ingestion, it is possible to remove about 50% of the contents in their system. It is critical to follow their instructions exactly when inducing vomiting. Be sure to monitor how much and what ‘stuff’ is vomited up.
Vomiting should NEVER be induced in dogs unless you are advised to do so by a veterinarian, and NEVER if your dog is weak or unconscious.
Whether you induce vomiting or not, be sure to bring your dog to a veterinarian for evaluation even if they seem fine. If possible, bring the chocolate packaging with you.
Which Chocolate Is Most Toxic to Dogs?
When the word "chocolate" is used, it isn't referring to a single item since there are so MANY different chocolate products, and each is considerably different from the other.
Typically, chocolate is divided into four main categories, but we have a fifth!
The amount of methylxanthines (theobromine and caffeine) present determines which category a type of chocolate falls under. The higher the amount, the more dangerous and toxic the chocolate is to your dog. Also, the more bitter the chocolate, the more toxic it is.
Chocolate Toxicity Ranking
Most toxic to least toxic:
Baker's chocolate contains 100% chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor is the term used for processed and ground cocoa beans and has nothing to do with liquor or alcohol.
As little as 0.1 oz. per pound of body weight can be toxic.
Dark chocolate contains 50 to 90% cocoa solids (a fatty component of the cocoa bean), cocoa butter, sugar, and an emulsifier. The higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the more bitter and toxic it is. Semi-Sweet Chocolate is considered "dark chocolate." It contains 35 to 45 % chocolate liquor.
About 0.13 oz. or more per pound of body weight can be toxic.
Milk chocolate must contain a minimum of 10% of chocolate liquor and 12% milk.
Note: Higher quality milk chocolates can contain up to 30 to 40% chocolate liquor. Therefore, lesser amounts of high-quality milk chocolate products will be toxic.
About 0.35 oz. or more per pound of body weight can be toxic.
White chocolate contains only trace amounts of caffeine and theobromine since it contains almost no cocoa solids. BUT it has a high fat and sugar content which can still cause issues.
While white chocolate isn't toxic in the traditional sense of chocolate poisoning, it can cause gastrointestinal upset such as vomiting, diarrhea, and pancreatitis due to its high fat and sugar content.
However, toxicity is always possible if your dog devours a huge amount of white chocolate, and they have a low threshold for caffeine and theobromine.
This is a fairly new chocolate category, and it is unlike other chocolates. Ruby chocolate was launched in 2017 after being patented in 2015. It is made from unfermented ruby cacao beans and it appears that its color is naturally pink, with a bit of a berry flavor. Since the processing is a secret, and it doesn't meet the FDA's definition of chocolate, it is a little harder to rank.
In looking at various ingredient lists, it is made from cocoa beans and sugar plus extra cocoa butter and some milk powder, which is similar to white chocolate. But it can contain 30 to 40% cocoa, which makes it more toxic than milk chocolate. So to err on the side of caution, assume it is more toxic than milk chocolate.
Toxicity Level: About 0.35 oz. or more per pound of body weight can be toxic.
A Preventive Vet team member was curious to try ruby chocolate. They loved it with its sweet and sour taste but kept it clear out of reach of their dogs.
Chocolate Toxicity Calculator
Chocolate Rankings Based on Theobromine Levels
The higher the theobromine level, the more toxic the chocolate. For dogs, the lethal dose of theobromine is 100 to 150 mg/kg of body weight.
Example: A ten-pound dog (4.5 kgs) could die from eating just 2 ounces of 85% dark chocolate
Here is a quick list of some of the top highest-containing treats and ingredients.
- Baking chocolate: 1 oz. = 376 mg
- Dark chocolate 70–85% : 1 oz. = 225 mg
- Dark chocolate 60–69%: 1 oz. = 179 mg
- Sweet chocolate candy: 1oz. = 175 mg
- Hot cocoa: 1 cup = 170 mg
- Dark chocolate coated coffee beans: 1 oz (28 beans) = 147 mg
- Cocoa powder: 1 tablespoon = 142 mg
- Dark chocolate 45–49%: 1oz. = 140mg
- Semi-sweet chocolate: 1 oz. = 138mg
- Milk chocolate: 1oz. = 40 mg
- Chocolate wafers: each wafer = 21mg
Dangers Beyond the Chocolate
While I have focused completely on chocolate in its more "natural" form, it is critical to realize that chocolate when present in other forms, such as baked goods (cake, cookies, pies, etc.), ice cream, snacks, trail mixes, etc., can be just as dangerous if not more so.
To make matters worse, many of these other products can contain additional toxins such as nuts, raisins, or xylitol. They can also contain food intolerant ingredients such as dairy, and they are often high in fat or sugar.
The combination of ingredients can make your dog's treatment significantly more complicated and increase their risk of death. Be sure to inform the treating veterinarian of all ingredients that your dog may have been exposed to.
Marijuana in edible forms, such as chocolate, cookies, and brownies, can be high in THC concentrations. This is dangerous for dogs, especially since they have more cannabinoid receptors in their brain than humans. The effects of marijuana are typically more intense and longer lasting for dogs than for people. Marijuana can cause dogs to fall into a coma. When dogs are in a coma and suffer the additional toxic effects of chocolate, they risk choking to death on their vomit. The number of marijuana cases, per Pet Poison Helpline, has had a 448% increase over the past 6 years.
If you suspect that your dog has consumed a medicated edible or any form of chocolate, call pet poison control or an emergency animal clinic. Be sure to tell them everything your dog may have consumed so that proper treatment can be administered.
Common Treatments for Chocolate Toxicity
Assessing Whether Your Dog Needs Medical Attention & Treatment
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer when it comes to how much chocolate can harm a dog and what symptoms may develop. Each dog responds uniquely.
What is known, on average, mild symptoms start to become evident when dogs consume about 20 mg of theobromine/kg of body weight. When consumption reaches 40mg/kg of body weight, symptoms can become severe. Seizures result when a dog has consumed about 60 mg/kg.
There are no readily accessible tests to diagnosis chocolate intoxication
Always seek medical attention for your dog if you suspect they have eaten chocolate, even if they seem fine. This is especially critical if your dog develops any symptoms, they are very young, pregnant, or have other medical issues. Generally, dogs need treatment if they have eaten 3.5 g/kg of dark chocolate and 14 g/kg of milk chocolate.
Treating Chocolate Intoxication
Initial treatment, if the ingestion was within 2 hours, is to decontaminate or remove the toxins from the body by inducing vomiting and giving activated charcoal. Supportive care with intravenous fluids is also essential in order to flush out toxins further and maintain proper hydration.
The bladder wall can reabsorb caffeine causing symptoms to be extended. Therefore, stimulating frequent urination by administering intravenous fluids and frequently emptying the bladder (either by walking or catheterization) is likely what the veterinary team will do.
Treatment is also needed to avoid or decrease the cardiovascular and central nervous system effects. This is done with the use of antiarrhythmic medications and sedatives. Your dog will have constant cardiovascular monitoring during this time.
Other treatments may be administered based on your dog's symptoms or symptoms that develop during the course of treatment.
The cost range for veterinary care to treat chocolate toxicity in a dog for mild cases can range from $250 to $700, depending on the veterinary practice and what region they're in. Severe cases of intoxication can be as high as $3,000.
Depending on the severity of your dog’s condition and their response to treatment, they could go home the same day or stay in the hospital for up to three days.
Personal Story: I know it can be frustrating to hear that a "definitive" answer can't be given on how chocolate will specifically affect your dog.
I had a classmate in veterinary school who had the sweetest whippet. Her sweet dog ate just the pointy top portion of a Hershey® Kiss (milk chocolate). Not even close to a toxic dose of chocolate. Just that small amount caused her dog to develop tremors, and by the time she reached the emergency room, she started with seizures.
Each case is unique and seeking medical advice as soon as possible is important.
Life After Chocolate Toxicity
Before bringing your dog home and in the future – especially around the holidays – remove or lock away any chocolate sweets. Sadly, dogs don't learn from their mistakes. Management is essential! If you have a dog who counter surfs, check out our article How to Stop Your Dog from Counter Surfing for tips and training.
Be sure everyone in your household, especially children and guests, is aware not to give chocolate in any form. Perhaps, when children are snacking, or company arrives, place your dog in a chocolate-free safe zone. This may be a specific room or a crate.
An additional step that you can take to avoid chocolate poisoning again is to teach your dog some useful (and potentially life-saving) training skills. The most ideal behavior to train is an automatic leave it. This is one step above a regular leave it cue as it doesn't rely on you actually saying "leave it" – instead, it's a default behavior. Start with practicing the basic leave it cue to build a nice foundation. Then start to layer in the automatic component, as shown in this video from Kikopup.
You can also practice the drop it cue with your dog so that if they grab food they shouldn't, you have a way to get it back from them before they swallow it. The last thing you want to do is chase after them or make a big deal about what they have in their mouth, as many dogs find this a fun game or will chew and swallow faster so you can't take it away.
If your dog also suffered from pancreatitis in addition to chocolate toxicity, be sure to keep them on a low-fat diet and treats formulated for dogs. Never give any table foods, and be sure they are regularly exercised. Following acute bouts of pancreatitis, some dogs are more likely to have reoccurrences.
It is important to have your dog regularly examined twice yearly if they suffered any complications from pancreatitis or other toxicities (nuts, raisins, etc.). Routine blood work is an important aspect of this. Regular monitoring allows for your veterinarian to know your dog’s normals. If values change (even if in normal ranges) from your dog’s average values, early intervention is possible.
There are certain holidays and events where chocolate is given as a gift. Therefore, the incidence of chocolate poisoning seems to increase around Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. If you have pets or are gifting on these holidays to someone with pets, perhaps request and find a non-chocolatey way to celebrate.
While many think chocolate poisoning is easy to avoid, ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center's helpline reported handling 76 cases of exposure to chocolate EVER DAY in 2020 – that's over 27,000 cases! On their list of top pet toxins, chocolate poisoning ranks 4th.
Personal Story: While this story is very embarrassing, I want to share it. I was slowly enjoying my dark chocolate bar (85% cocoa) as I was packing. It was placed on a high table, and stuff was everywhere. By all accounts, I thought it was safe. A bit of time had passed, and I decided to indulge in another piece. I went to the table where I swore I left the bar but couldn't find it. I was prepared to torture whoever ate my wonderful chocolate. But then I reminded myself that no one in my family will eat dark chocolate (hence why I buy it!), plus how could they find it hidden amongst all of my things? But as I continued to search, I found the remains of the wrapper on the floor.
To my shock and distress, my little dog must have managed to leap on the chair and then to the table to eat it. Mind you; there were things all over the table, so his nose must have found the chocolate. He did it very quietly and without notice.
By some miracle, he was fine and experienced no side effects. I was very fortunate because the type and amount he consumed, especially with his small size, could have and should have killed him. Just because he managed to suffer no ill effects doesn’t mean I feel safe letting him have chocolate in ANY form.
Some People Feed Their Dog Chocolate
While we all know of someone who actually feeds their dog chocolate, and all seems fine. Let's be clear that is the exception and not the rule!
With anything that has known harmful side effects, always err on the side of caution and never give it. This includes situations where you may have gotten lucky, and your dog didn't get sick. Next time, the consequences may be serious.
Personal Story: I was approached by an elder friend. He said he needed to ask me something and wanted me to be completely honest.
He said, "You know I really love my dog (about a year old). I have always given him food I eat. So, the other night, I gave him half of the leftover chocolate cake my wife made. When I woke up the next morning, he was dead. Did I kill my dog?"
My heart sank. He was so sad, and you could tell he wanted me to say he didn't.
It broke my heart to tell him the truth, that yes, the cake likely killed his dog.
He had no idea that chocolate, especially in cake form, was toxic. This was one situation where love and not knowing ended in tragedy.
Is Chocolate Toxic to Cats?
Chocolate toxicity discussions typically seem to be dog-centric because they account for roughly 95% of chocolate consumption cases. But it is important for pet owners to know that chocolate is toxic to cats TOO. Therefore, do not give your cat chocolate in any form. Just a small amount can be problematic for your cat.
Typically, cats don't raid Easter baskets or Halloween candy stashes like dogs. But that isn't to say that they don't ever have a taste for chocolate. Additionally, cats will eat other items that may contain chocolate such as breads, cakes, cookies, etc. And just like these chocolatey items complicate chocolate toxicity for dogs, the same holds true for cats.
In general, due to their small size, any amount of chocolate can be potentially dangerous for your cat. 200mg/kg of theobromine is a toxic dose. For caffeine, a range of 100 to 150 mg/kg is the minimum lethal dose.
Just like with dogs, the effects are worse depending on the type of chocolate and the amount consumed. For example, for an 8 lb cat, 0.2 oz. of baker’s chocolate is all it takes to cause toxicity. Whereas with milk chocolate, 1.14 oz. is generally the minimum that causes toxicity. Always seek veterinary care if you suspect your cat has eaten any type of chocolate.
Personal Story: Growing up I had the best cat in the world that we named Sandy. He was an indoor/outdoor cat with a personality as big as the moon.
It was Thanksgiving, and we were preparing things for our family gathering. Sandy happened to be inside that day. Since we were so busy cleaning and cooking, we weren’t paying that close attention to him. Suddenly my mother yells – to this day I think her shrieks can still be heard! Sandy had gotten onto the kitchen table, something he had never done before, and ate half a loaf of zucchini bread that contained chocolate chips and nuts. The wonderful loaf was meant for company.
My mother told me to close Sandy in my room. Well, a couple of hours had passed, and I was told to let the cat outside. He wasn’t a fan of company and he made sure they knew it. I went to open my bedroom door, he pushed out the door to head to the outside door. I assumed he was annoyed about being locked up for his crimes. But then I looked up. My bed was covered in vomit, diarrhea, and urine. Was it the over-indulgence, the chocolate, the nuts, the fat, or a combo of several things that made him sick? I have no idea, but that complete purging is likely what saved him. So as you can see, cats will sometimes do things out of character.
Please protect your pets and keep all the chocolatey goodness to yourself.