Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, both of which are methylxanthines, a class of compounds that occur naturally in certain plants, including the fruit of the coffee plant and the seeds of the cacao plant. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, colas and some human stimulant drugs. Theobromine is present in chocolate, colas and tea.

    Methylxanthines all act as a central-nervous-system stimulant. The most common cause of poisoning in small animals is ingestion of chocolate, though toxicity has occurred following ingestion of coffee grounds, tea bags or human medications. Cocoa powder contains the highest amount of caffeine and theobromine, followed by unsweetened baker’s chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate and milk chocolate.

    The most common signs of chocolate toxicity are restlessness and hyperactivity, vomiting, diarrhea and a rapid and irregular heartbeat. Hyperactivity may progress to tremors and seizures when large amounts of chocolate are ingested.  

    Diagnosis is based on a history of recent ingestion along with consistent clinical signs. Various body tissues can be tested for methylxanthines, but only at special labs. This takes time, when treatment needs to occur immediately.

    Your veterinarian will always try to induce vomiting to eliminate the chocolate from the dog’s stomach. Once the stomach has been emptied, activated charcoal is administered orally to prevent absorption of any methylxanthines from the intestines. Clinical signs are treated symptomatically and may require intravenous fluids, as well as medications to control hyperactivity, seizures and an abnormal heartrate.  

    Chocolate poisoning is especially a risk during holidays such as Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter.

    In most cases, recovery occurs in 24-48 hours with appropriate treatment. Without prompt and appropriate treatments, pets can die from seizures and irregular heart rates.

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

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