Most dog owners know that eating chocolate is a big “no-no” for their canine friends (and if you didn’t already know, consider this fair warning), but what you may not be aware of is what happens if a dog eats chocolate and why it’s bad for dogs. Two ingredients in chocolate, caffeine and theobromine, are toxic to dogs when consumed.

Why is chocolate bad for dogs?

Caffeine and theobromine are both stimulants, and while humans can easily metabolize them, often benefiting from an increase in energy after consuming chocolate, these same chemicals are too much for a dog’s body to handle. Dogs metabolize caffeine and theobromine much more slowly than humans, which can cause a buildup of the stimulants in their system, putting their bodies into overdrive.

The darker, more bitter, or purer the chocolate, the more caffeine and theobromine it contains, and the more toxic it is to dogs. Unsweetened, semi-sweet, bittersweet, and dark chocolates all pose a greater risk to dogs when consumed, though all forms of chocolate should be kept out of your dog’s reach. Chocolate chips and bar chocolate may seem like obvious culprits, but keep in mind other processed chocolates like baking cocoa/powder, hot cocoa mix, dry pudding mix, and brownie mix. All these forms of chocolate contain caffeine and theobromine and can be just as harmful to dogs.

Though milk chocolate is more diluted than dark chocolate, it can still pose a risk depending on your dog’s size and how much chocolate they ate. White chocolate is made from cocoa butter, and while it does not contain any cocoa solids, it still contains trace levels of caffeine and theobromine. So, while white chocolate is less likely to poison your dog, they still should not eat it.

While it’s not the sugar content in chocolate that’s a risk to dogs, be aware of chocolate products or other candy that contain xylitol or birch sugar, an artificial sweetener that is also toxic to dogs.

My dog ate chocolate. What do I do?

If chocolate toxicity is suspected or you know your pet ingested a product with chocolate in it, seek immediate veterinary care.

If you know your dog ate chocolate, call your veterinarian immediately. Even if you don’t know exactly how much chocolate your dog ate, do your best to estimate the amount and provide details on the type of chocolate. If they ate a bag of chocolate, for instance, consider how full the bag was before and after the dog got to it. If they consumed a tray of brownies, dig the brownie mix box out of the recycling to check the ingredients list and quantities. If you need to bring your dog to the vet for further evaluation or treatment, bring the chocolate packaging with you! You want to provide your veterinarian with as much information as possible so they can make the most accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

If there is no material evidence that your dog ate chocolate, but they are experiencing any of the following signs, take your dog to the vet.

Signs of chocolate poisoning in dogs:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Rapid breathing/panting
  • Weakness
  • Increased heart rate

What to expect when you take your dog to the vet for chocolate poisoning

Once you get your dog to the vet, and as long as it’s only been a few hours (8 hours tops) since they ate chocolate and it’s still in their stomach, your veterinarian will most likely induce vomiting to get the chocolate out of their system. Depending on the severity of the chocolate poisoning, your dog may need observation or supportive care, but in most cases, once the chocolate is removed from the stomach and the dog is in stable condition, they are free to go home.

Any technique for inducing vomiting at home is dangerous to dogs and cats. For instance, hydrogen peroxide causes stomach ulcers that take up to 2 weeks to heal, which can lead to vomiting, dehydration, and lack of appetite. Always consult your veterinarian when your pet consumes something they shouldn’t – don’t try to treat it yourself.

Don’t wait to call your veterinarian and/or bring your dog to the vet if they ate (or you suspect they ate) chocolate. The longer you wait, the more severe their clinical signs may be; once they are experiencing signs like seizures or elevated heart rate, they will need much more advanced medical care to treat the toxicity. Depending on the size of the dog and the amount of chocolate consumed, chocolate toxicity can be fatal, especially if prompt treatment is not pursued.

Avoid an emergency visit to the vet for chocolate toxicity – and the medical bills associated with the visit – by keeping chocolate away from your dog.