The Halloween season brings with it much amusement and excitement, and one anticipated tradition is the variety of chocolate you have an excuse to enjoy. While all of these Halloween treats may only bring your children a sugar rush and a tummy ache, it can do much more serious damage to your pets.
“Chocolate and caffeine belong to a group of plant molecules called methylated xanthine alkaloids, which are commonly found in a variety of foods, drinks and medications,” says Dr. Medora Pashmakova, clinical assistant professor in Emergency/Critical Care Medicine at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
“As stimulants, they cause excitation of the central nervous system, heart rate, and respiratory centers of the brain and can also stimulate the body’s own secretion of adrenaline. And, when in the form of candy and chocolate bars, they taste delicious, which is why dogs love to eat them in such large quantities,” says Pashmakova.
As a rule of thumb, the higher the cocoa concentration, the more theobromine, which is the active ingredient that is toxic in high doses. Baker’s chocolate, for example, can be particularly concerning, while white chocolate contains no cocoa and is not actually toxic to dogs.
“The vast majority of candy bars contain very little actual theobromine, as they are comprised of milk chocolate covering a large amount of nuts, caramel, wafers, etc., so the actual chocolate ingestion is usually benign,” says. Pashmakova. “We become much more concerned with small dogs and the ingestion of dark chocolate.”
If possible, it is always a good idea to find out how much and what kind of chocolate your pet ingested in order to decide what actions should be taken. Chocolate is absorbed within about an hour, so you must act quickly if the ingestion was toxic.
“Once you have identified the amount and type of chocolate ingested, you can do some simple math and find out the ‘milligram per kilogram’ theobromine ingestion for your pet,” says Pashmakova. “As little as 30 mg/kg of theobromine can cause cardiac stimulation, such as fast heart rate or other arrhythmias.”
“Central nervous system (CNS) excitation, erratic behavior, and pacing are also common, due to the stimulant effects. The higher the dose, the more concerning these are,” says Pashmakova.
If you’re unable to determine the ingested dose, the best thing to do is contact the ASPCA pet poison control hotline and talk to a toxicologist directly who can help you determine if your pet needs urgent medical care. Though there are no particular tests that your veterinarian can perform for chocolate toxicity, if they do suspect a toxic dose has been ingested recently and the dog is not showing neurological signs, they may induce vomiting at the hospital.
“This usually is very successful in decontaminating the gastrointestinal tract and preventing further absorption. However, if dogs have clinical manifestations of CNS excitation, we typically will recommend supportive care and time,” says Pashmakova. “This includes a dose of activated charcoal, close monitoring of vital signs, and lots of IV fluids to rid the body of the toxicity.”
Although chocolate is the most prevalent concern during the Halloween season, it is also important to keep in mind the dangers of caffeine tablet toxicity for dogs. As always, don’t assume that human medications are safe for companion animals, and when in doubt, consult a veterinarian first.
“A small dog getting into one or two tablets can be fatal if not caught early and not decontaminated and treated appropriately,” says Pashmakova. “Keep all stimulant drugs out of the reach of dogs and cats; their smaller body sizes and different propensities to metabolize drugs make things that are safe for people really toxic for them.”
No amount of chocolate or caffeine is healthy for your dog to consume, even if it doesn’t result in toxicity, so keep the trick-or-treating baskets out of reach this Halloween.