Dog & Cat

Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, both of which are members of the methylxanthine group of compounds. The methylxanthines occur naturally in several plants, especially in the seeds that we make coffee and chocolate with. They often are present in some medications. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, colas, and some human stimulant drugs. Theobromine is present in chocolate, cocoa beans, colas, and tea. Methylxanthines as a group act as central nervous system stimulants. There are rapidly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. The most common cause of poisoning in small animals is eating chocolate, although toxicity has occurred following ingestion of coffee grounds, teabags or human medications. In addition to their stimulant effects, many chocolate products contain high levels of fat that may cause gastrointestinal upset and pancreatitis. Cocoa powder contains the highest amount of caffeine and theobromine, followed by unsweetened bakers chocolate and milk chocolate. White chocolate contains negligible amounts of methylxanthines, but can still pose a risk of gastrointestinal upset and pancreatitis.

Most common signs are restlessness and hyperactivity, vomiting, diarrhea, increased drinking and urinating, and a very rapid heart rate. Animals may begin pacing and are unable to sit still. Hyperactivity may progress to trembling and seizures if large amounts are ingested. Diagnosis is based on the history of recent ingestion along with consistent clinical signs. The vomit may contain evidence of the substance ingested. There is no testing that can be done at your veterinarian clinic. All testing must be done at specialty clinics, which may take weeks to months.

In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend that you induced vomiting at home depending upon the amount ingested and signs the animal is exhibiting. Activated charcoal may be administered. Activated charcoal helps prevent absorption of the methylxanthine agent from the gut. Clinical signs are treated symptomatically and may require intravenous fluids, as well as medication to control hyperactivity, seizures, vomiting, and a rapid heart rate.

Chocolate poisoning is especially a risk during holidays such as Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. In most cases, recovery occurs within 24-48 hours with appropriate treatment. The prognosis is guarded if large amounts are ingested, if treatment is delayed, or the animal is exhibiting severe signs.

Dr. Karsten Fostvedt is a veterinarian at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum.

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