Chocolate poisoning

photo of cat and dog on white background

Overview

  • Chocolate contains a substance called theobromine, which is perfectly safe for humans, but toxic for dogs, cats and rabbits.
  • The seriousness of chocolate poisoning depends on how much chocolate your pet has eaten, how big they are, and the cocoa content of the chocolate – the darker the chocolate the more toxic it’s likely to be.
  • If your pet has eaten chocolate, keep the packaging and call your vet immediately.

Why is chocolate poisonous to pets?

An infographic depicting the toxicity of different types of chocolate to pets

Chocolate is made with cocoa solids, which contain a substance called theobromine. Theobromine is harmless to humans, but toxic to dogs, cats and rabbits because they struggle to metabolise it (break it down).

As a general rule, the darker the chocolate, the more cocoa solids/theobromine it will contain, and the more toxic it’s likely to be. However, even chocolate with less cocoa solids can be toxic if enough of it is eaten. Although white chocolate doesn’t contain any cocoa solids (so toxicity isn’t a risk), it does contain a lot of fat and sugar, which can cause stomach upsets and in severe cases, pancreatitis. Cocoa powder is especially toxic because it contains an extremely high concentration of cocoa solids.

Symptoms

Theobromine is a similar substance to caffeine and if it’s ingested at a toxic dose, it can cause the nervous system, guts, and muscles to go into overdrive. This typically causes symptoms such as:

Symptoms of chocolate poisoning usually appear within 2-12 hours and can last for days. In severe cases toxicity can cause:

  • Fast breathing or panting
  • Shaking, trembling and tremors
  • High temperature (fever)
  • Seizures
  • A fast heart rate
  • High blood pressure

This is very rare, but the most severe cases of chocolate poisoning can lead to heart failure, coma and even death.

When to contact your vet

If you suspect your pet may have eaten chocolate, call your veterinary practice or the ‘Animal Poison Line’ for advice. You will need to tell them the type of chocolate, how much they ingested, the size of your pet, and when it happened. As a first step, for dogs, you could also check out the dog chocolate toxicity calculator below.

Treatment

If your pet has eaten a toxic dose of chocolate it’s important that they are seen by a vet as soon as possible. The treatment they need will depend on how much/what type of chocolate they have eaten. Common treatments include:

  • Induced vomiting – if you can get your pet to the clinic within a few hours of them eating the chocolate, your vet might give them an injection to make them sick.
  • Activated charcoal – your vet may give your pet some activated charcoal to absorb any remaining toxins, and they might give you some to continue administering at home.
  • A fluid drip – depending on how much chocolate your pet has eaten, and the seriousness of their condition, they may need a fluid drip to support their vital organs and prevent them becoming dehydrated while their body flushes out any toxins.
  • Sedation – if your pet is suffering with severe symptoms such as tremors and seizures, they may need to be sedated to stop them from getting worse.
  • Close monitoring – if your vet decides to keep your pet in the hospital, they will monitor them closely and ask you to do the same once they are home. It’s important that you contact your vet for advice if your pet deteriorates.

Outlook

Fortunately, most cases of chocolate ingestion don’t cause long term problems, and with the right treatment, most pets make a full recovery. However, it’s important to act fast because in severe cases, chocolate poisoning can be fatal if treatment is delayed.

Prevention

  • Never feed chocolate to your pets (make sure any children in the house also know not to).
  • Keep all chocolate, and chocolate containing products, out of reach by storing them in high or locked cupboards.
  • Be particularly careful at festive times such as Easter, Christmas and other events that involve chocolate.
  • Try to keep your pet away from post and parcels – you never know when someone might send you a chocolatey treat!
  • Avoid using gardening mulches that contain cocoa shell.

Cost

What an expensive snack! Treatment for chocolate poisoning can cost hundreds of pounds (depending on the treatment needed). Consider insuring your pet as soon as you get them (before any problems develop), to ensure you have the financial support you need if they become unwell. It’s also very important to speak to your vet if you can’t afford the treatment they have recommended because there may be other options.

Published: December 2021

PetWise Pet Health Hub – brought to you thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery 

Written by vets and vet nurses. This advice is for UK pets only.

Illustrations by Samantha Elmhurst