The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center receives more than 100 calls each day about chocolate ingestion in dogs, which amounts to one or more cases every 15 minutes. Most pet owners are aware that chocolate is toxic to dogs and do not feed them the treat, but accidental ingestions are common, because chocolate is readily available and dogs will eat large amounts without much thought. Neighborhood Veterinary Centers share what you need to know if your dog—or less commonly, your cat—eats chocolate.

The pet-toxic elements in chocolate

Chocolate is perfectly safe for humans, but contains several elements called methylxanthines that dogs and cats cannot metabolize well. Cats are notoriously picky, but dogs frequently seek out and ingest toxic chocolate. Theobromine is present in the highest concentrations, but caffeine also contributes, and the total of theobromine plus caffeine determines toxicity level.

Factors affecting pet chocolate toxicity 

Chocolate toxicity is dose-dependent, meaning that severity depends on the amount of methylxanthine a pet consumes in relation to body size. Large pets who eat small amounts will have few negative effects, but small pets who eat large amounts can be in life-threatening danger. Some individual pets are also more sensitive to chocolate than other same-size pets. 

Each chocolate type has a different methylxanthine concentration, so dark types (e.g., cocoa powder, baker’s chocolate) are highly dangerous, while milk and white chocolate cause fewer problems. Here is a list of chocolate types with the most to least methylxanthine concentration:

  • Cocoa powder
  • Baker’s chocolate
  • Cocoa bean hulls—used in some mulch types
  • Dark chocolate
  • Milk chocolate
  • White chocolate

Pet chocolate toxicity signs

Methylxanthines act as stimulants in pets, affecting their gastrointestinal system, nervous system, and heart function. Mild toxicity usually causes only vomiting or diarrhea, but higher doses can lead to these serious problems:

  • Tremors or seizures
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased body temperature
  • Incoordination
  • Increased drinking and urine volume
  • Fast, slow, or irregular heart rate
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Coma
  • Death

What to do if your pet eats chocolate

If your pet eats chocolate, try to determine the type and amount, and when the ingestion occurred—find the product label if you can. Then, call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center or Pet Poison Helpline ready to answer questions about your pet’s size, health history, medications, and details about the chocolate ingestion. They will advise you whether to monitor your pet at home, induce vomiting—only if you are given specific instructions—or head straight to your primary veterinarian or a veterinary emergency facility. 

These poison control services can quickly calculate the estimated methylxanthine dose your pet consumed, and determine the best treatment based on your information. If your pet requires veterinary care, the poison control experts will advise your veterinary team on the exact treatment recommendations and can help if they encounter any unexpected complications. The services charge a small fee, but most veterinarians request that you call them to open a case before you seek emergency care.

Pet chocolate toxicity treatment

Treatment depends on your pet’s health history, when the ingestion occurred, and whether your pet seems sick. If your pet is already vomiting, they usually will be administered an anti-nausea medication, followed by activated charcoal, which absorbs toxins from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Other supportive treatments may include:

  • IV fluids to flush out toxins and support normal cardiovascular function
  • Medications to control tremors and seizures
  • Sedatives or anesthesia for severe seizure activity
  • Medications to correct abnormal heart rhythms

Most pets with moderate or severe chocolate toxicity will be hospitalized for at least 24 hours to be monitored and their treatment continued. Methylxanthines can be reabsorbed from the GI tract or bladder hours after the initial ingestion, so your pet’s condition can change quickly. In severe cases, pets may need treatment in the hospital for two to three days.

Your best defense against chocolate toxicity is to keep all chocolate-containing items out of your pet’s reach. Secure baking chocolate and cocoa in high cabinets, and keep pets out of the kitchen when you are working with these ingredients. Ensure children understand that they must not share food with pets, or keep candy in their bedrooms. 

Despite these precautions, accidents still happen. Contact your nearest Neighborhood Veterinary Centers hospital if your pet eats chocolate, or for more tips and advice on avoiding common pet emergencies.