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Death From Chocolate

Sandra Justice, PD, FACA

Can you die from eating chocolate? Probably not, but your pet surely could. Almost everybody loves chocolate, and almost everybody loves to share it with someone they love. However, eating chocolate can be a fatal mistake for some animals. Incidences of chocolate poisoning soar during the holidays, starting at the end of October when Halloween loot begins to accumulate, and lasting until the middle of February when Valentine chocolates abound.

Because of their close proximity to human stashes of chocolate, dogs and cats are the animals that are most frequently poisoned by chocolate. Cocoa, a primary ingredient in most chocolates, contains a set of compounds called methylxanthines. Some of the components in these compounds cannot be properly eliminated by many animals, including dogs. The build-up of these compounds can cause severe impairments to the function of the gut, brain and heart.

Poisoning from chocolate usually becomes evident within 2 to 4 hours of ingestion of an excessive amount of chocolate. Some of the signs of chocolate poisoning are restlessness, agitation, vomiting, urinary incontinence, a racing heartbeat (300 beats per minute) and panting (130 – 200 breaths per minute). The animal may appear to be delirious and may have muscle tremors or seizures. Cardiac arrest is the most likely cause of death from chocolate poisoning and usually occurs within 12 to 36 hours after the animal has eaten too much chocolate.

Sharing bites of chocolate with your pet encourages the development of a taste for this human foodstuff, and exercising willpower against the craving for that taste is not an option for animals. If a dog, for example, has the opportunity to gorge itself on chocolate, it will most likely ingest not only the candy, but the wrappers as well. This poses a secondary problem for the animal. The wrappers may form an obstruction and block the lower opening of the stomach. This mass then acts as a sustained release supply of the harmful compounds in the chocolate.

There is no specific antidote for chocolate poisoning. The standard treatment is to induce vomiting in an attempt to remove the poisoning agent from the gut before it does too much damage. In all cases of chocolate ingestion the attention of a veterinarian should be sought. Most cases can be successfully treated if realized early. The chances for survival are excellent if the poisoning is treated within 2 hours.

Protecting your pet from developing a taste for chocolate which might result in a fatal overdose is a simple as not offering the first piece.