Why Easter is chocolate free for dogs and cats

Keep cats and dogs safe during Easter.
Keep cats and dogs safe during Easter.  Photo: GettyImages

Easter is just around the corner and while we humans look forward to indulging in some chocolate treats, they are a big no-no for our dogs and cats. Most accidental exposure of chocolate occurs around holiday periods so it's important to know what you need to do to keep the furry members of the family safe this Easter.

Why is chocolate bad for dogs and cats?

Chocolate, cocoa powder and carob all contain a naturally occurring, bitter and volatile compound called theobromine. The amount of theobromine varies depending on the type of chocolate you are eating. For example, six squares of dark chocolate (28 grams) contain 200 milligrams of theobromine compared to 60 milligrams in milk chocolate.

The theobromine in chocolate triggers the release of norepinephrine and epinephrine – two substances that can increase heart rate and cause irregular or abnormal rhythms. The danger for dogs and cats is that they metabolise theobromine at a much slower rate – even a small amount can do a lot of damage because it stays in a dog's system longer.

Another harmful ingredient of chocolate is caffeine. While the concentration of caffeine in chocolate is lower than that of theobromine, it does contribute to toxicity.

What kind of chocolate is dangerous for dogs and cats?

There is a wide variety of chocolate and cocoa products that are bad news for dogs and cats. They range from chocolate bars, lollies, chocolate or cocoa powder to cookies, brownies, cakes and baking supplies.

As dogs are indiscriminate eaters, they are more at risk of eating things they shouldn't. While cats are less likely to eat chocolate (most cats lack sweet-taste receptors), vigilance is still important. All the shiny foil wrappers, bells and ribbons that we love at Easter time attract the attention of cats, especially kittens.

A little bit won't hurt, right?

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Actually, a little bit of chocolate may cause a lot of damage, especially to cats and small-breed dogs and puppies, so it's wise to instate a no-chocolate-to-pets policy.

Toxicity is dependent on the weight of the animal and the amount of chocolate ingested. If a 20-kilogram dog (like a collie or poodle) eats just 25 grams of dark chocolate, it could show symptoms of chocolate poisoning. If a smaller animal eats the same amount, that could prove to be lethal.

Signs of chocolate ingestion

The signs of chocolate toxicosis will present between 6 to 12 hours after ingestion, depending on the amount eaten and size of the animal. Dr Katrin Swindells from Western Australian Veterinary Emergency and Specialty (WAVES) says that it's important to watch for clinical signs. "If the toxic component is already being absorbed from the stomach we commonly see an increased thirst and increased urination, agitation, hyperactivity, vomiting, muscle tremors or shaking and seizures or fits," she says. "A life-threateningly fast heart rate commonly also occurs but that is a bit harder [for] owners to recognise. Because of the high-fat content of chocolate, dogs are at risk of developing pancreatitis a couple of days later, and this commonly presents with vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain."

What should I do if my pet has eaten chocolate?

If you think your dog or cat might have ingested chocolate, Dr Swindells says that quick action is needed.

"If owners find their pet has eaten chocolate, they should immediately call their veterinarian or an after-hours emergency service such as WAVES," she says. "If they can provide us with their pet's weight, the type of chocolate eaten – like milk chocolate, dark chocolate or baking chocolate – and the maximum amount of chocolate that may have been eaten, we can work out over the phone if it is likely that a toxic dose has been eaten and how likely it is that a lethal toxic dose, which can cause death, has been eaten. We can then give them advice about whether their pet needs to be seen immediately for treatment to decontaminate them, and support them through the toxicity."

Tips to keep dogs and cats safe this Easter

  • Always keep chocolate up high and out of reach of dogs and cats. Keep Easter eggs and lollies off the floor and make sure all wrappers are put in the bin.
  • Keep baking supplies containing cocoa and chocolate in a sealed container away from inquisitive noses.
  • If you're planning on having an Easter egg hunt in the garden, make sure that all hidden eggs are collected and accounted for.
  • Educate kids that while we love chocolate, it can make pets very sick.
  • Have emergency vet numbers handy. Being prepared just in case is always a good idea.

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