Chocolate: The addicting food that can put our dogs in danger

 A dog hoping for a yummy treat

My grandmother suffered from mild asthma and whenever she would start coughing, she used to call me to her side and ask me to make her a cup of coffee. She would put the coffee in front of her, sipping it slowly and allowing the smell of coffee to enter her nostrils as she inhaled. Although I was happy to be of some help to her, I was almost certain that her coffee routine was of absolutely no use. In my mind there was no possibility that this coffee ritual was helping her breathing.

It was years later in pharmacy school that I learned about a group of compounds known as methyxanthines which include caffeine, aminophylline, theophylline, and theobromine. Methyxanthines are alkaloids that have a stimulating effect on the central nervous system as well as a dilating effect in the lungs. I found out that many methylxanthines are in fact used as a treatment for asthma. So even though coffee itself is not the drug selected for the treatment of asthma, it does have some bronchodilator effects. I wanted to run home and say “Grandma, you were right!! You were right!!” I unfortunately never got the chance to. Today I’m proud to say that I had one of the nicest and one of the smartest grandmas, and I do miss her.

Methylxanthine derivatives have been used for the treatment of asthma and for increasing alertness for quite some time now; however these medications are not without their share of side effects. In high doses, there is an increase in heart rate, tremors, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbance, and convulsions. These methylxanthines are found in coffee, guarana, Kola, tea, and chocolate. The one that we are specifically concerned with here is theobromine, which is found in chocolate.

Although our dogs are not likely going to drink too much coffee on their own, they can get into some tempting chocolate and wind up causing a potentially life-threatening situation for themselves. Dogs  metabolize methylxanthine derivatives much slower than humans do and are more susceptible to experiencing the dangerous side effects from them. It doesn’t take that much dark chocolate ingestion to cause a serious medical emergency for a small or medium sized dog. Even a large dog can gulp down enough chocolate at one sitting to create a big problem.

“How much chocolate can be dangerous to my dog?” is a fairly common question that I hear from dog owners. Although the answer is different depending on the dog’s age and weight and other medical conditions, it is best to completely avoid giving your dog chocolate in any quantity. Dogs learn behaviors by doing them and by repetition; eating chocolate is not something we’d want our family pet to get too comfortable doing. If you Google “dog” and “chocolate,” we see so many different answers about the dose that could be harmful depending on pet weight, color of the chocolate, what the chocolate is used for, and other factors. As far as I’m concerned, any quantity of chocolate is too much to give your dog–as little as one ounce can cause very serious, potentially life-threatening adverse effects in a small dog. It is true that dark chocolate is worse than milk chocolate and baker’s chocolate is the most toxic; however, when it comes to my dog’s life, I’m not about to try and figure out the shade of the potential poison I’m feeding him.

We keep hearing and reading about dogs and chocolate and how dangerous a combination that is, so cat lovers might be feeling a little left out. Theobromine is actually more toxic in cats than in dogs, but since cats don’t usually have the ability to taste “sweet,” it is not too common to hear of a cat ingesting even a small amount of chocolate on their own. Recently however I have come across a cat that seemed to love sweets for some odd reason, so we do need to be extra careful.

How else is chocolate dangerous? Besides the potential of theobromine poisoning, the amount of sugar and fat that is usually found in chocolate and certain candy has the potential to cause a very dangerous condition called pancreatitis.

If you’re lucky enough to get a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day, enjoy but keep the box stored safely out of the reach of inquisitive pets.  If you suspect your pet has ingested chocolate, it’s best to call your veterinarian right away for advice. As usual, if you have any medication-related questions, please feel free to call your 1800PetMeds pharmacist who will be happy to answer those for you.

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