Dogs are four times more likely to visit the vet due to chocolate poisoning around Christmas time than in any other non-holiday period, according to a new study. The British researchers hope that their findings will raise awareness and help dog owners prepare by being more careful with what sweets they leave unattended around the house.

A chocolate canine. Credit: Pixabay.

A chocolate lab. Credit: Pixabay.

Both dogs and cats can quickly become poisoned by chocolate (Theobroma cacao), which contains a caffeine-like compound called theobromine. Although theobromine is harmless to humans, dogs can’t metabolize the substance nearly as fast as we can so it ends up building up in the body to toxic levels. Even small amounts of chocolate can cause problems, including vomiting and diarrhea.

The trouble with chocolate is that dogs love it (cats are typically uninterested because they can’t detect sweet flavors). As such, once they’ve acquired the taste, they’ll easily devour chocolate tablets and bars. You can see how this can become a problem around the holiday season when sweets abound virtually everywhere around you.

A dangerous treat

Researchers at the Institute of Veterinary Science at the University of Liverpool studied records from 2012 to 2017 supplied by 230 veterinary practices around the UK. They specifically focused on chocolate poisoning-related visits, finding 386 such cases involving 375 dogs. Apparently, judging from these figures, some sweet-toothed canines apparently didn’t learn their lesson from the first time around.

No particular breed seems to be more vulnerable to chocolate poisoning. The most common symptoms were vomiting, increased heart rate, agitation and restlessness, the researchers wrote in the journal Vet Record.

The team found that around Easter, dogs were twice as likely to have chocolate exposure than on non-holidays. Around Christmas time, canines were four times likelier to get chocolate poisoning. Surprisingly, there was no visible increase in such vet visits around Halloween or Valentine’s Day.

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The most common types of chocolate sweets dogs devoured were chocolate bars, gift boxes, chocolate rabbits, Santa figurines, and also chocolate decorations.

“Chocolate ingestion has a unique seasonal pattern which merits highlighting this risk to clients, particularly in the run-up to Christmas and Easter as chocolate becomes more accessible within the household. Given the frequent use of emetics in animals with documented non-toxic doses of theobromine, further research into the risks and consequences of emetic therapy is indicated,” the authors wrote in their paper.

When a vet receives a dog exposed to chocolate, the usual course of action is to administer vomiting-inducing medication to flush the chocolate out of the stomach. Sometimes, administering activated charcoal to block absorption of theobromine into the body may be all that is necessary. Supportive treatments such as intravenous fluid therapy to help stabilize the dog and promote theobromine excretion are also common.

If you find your dog is acting suspiciously well behaved besides empty chocolate wrappers, researchers recommend you immediately call the vet. Preferably, you should offer the vet a description of the type of chocolate the dog ate. This can matter since milk chocolate has less theobromine than dark chocolate, for instance.

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