Poor Pups: Chocolate Poisonings in Dogs Spike During Christmastime

A beagle dog at christmas
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

'Tis the season … in which chocolate treats poison pet dogs, according to a new study from England. The research found that pups are four times more likely to go to the veterinarian for chocolate poisoning during Christmastime than any non-holiday time of the year.

The findings may help raise awareness among pet owners that Christmastime, and to a lesser extent Easter, are periods when dogs — especially young pups — tend to get chocolate poisoning, the researchers said in the study published online today (Dec. 20) in the journal Vet Record.

"We thought this was a useful message to put out around Christmas to help owners avoid an unwanted visit to the vet," said study co-author P-J Noble, a senior lecturer in internal medicine at the Institute of Veterinary Science at the University of Liverpool. [Why Is Chocolate Deadly for Dogs?]

Chocolate (Theobroma cacao) is poisonous to dogs because it contains theobromine, a stimulant that resembles caffeine. Theobromine is mostly harmless to people, but dogs and cats metabolize the compound much more slowly than humans do, meaning it can build up to toxic levels in their bodies, Noble told Live Science in an email.

Cats, however, can't taste sweets things, so they don't seek out sugary goodies, such as chocolate. Dogs, in contrast, will often do anything for a chocolatey treat, even though eating even small amounts of chocolate can lead to vomiting and diarrhea, Noble said.  

At higher doses, chocolate can cause dogs to have agitation, incoordination and tremors, and at even higher doses, the substance can cause seizures, coma and death in dogs, he said.

Dog detectives

To learn more about dog illness patterns, Noble and his colleagues analyzed records from 2012 to 2017 from nearly 230 veterinary practices in the United Kingdom. In particular, the researchers looked for vet visits related to chocolate poisoning around Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day and Halloween.

In all, the investigators found 386 cases from 375 dogs, meaning that some dogs had been taken to the vet for eating chocolate more than once. One in four vet visits happened within 1 hour of the dog eating chocolate, and more than half occurred within 6 hours of the chocolate incident, the researchers found.

Symptoms included vomiting (in 17 percent of the cases), increased heart rate (7.5 percent), and agitation and restlessness (3 percent). No particular breed stood out as having a greater risk of chocolate poisoning, the researchers said.

Surprisingly, there was no increase in chocolate-related vet visits around Halloween or Valentine's Day, although dogs were more than twice as likely to have chocolate exposure on Easter than on non-holidays. "Maybe we look after our Valentine's chocolate better," Noble joked.

The most common sources for chocolates devoured by dogs included chocolate bars, gift boxes, Easter eggs, chocolate cake, liqueurs, chocolate rabbits, Santa Claus figurines, advent calendars and Christmas tree decorations. White chocolate incidents were rare, with the exceptions of Easter eggs, the researchers found. (Theobromine is less concentrated in white chocolate than in dark chocolate, according to a PLOS blog by science writer Deborah Blum.)

If you suspect your dog has eaten chocolate, "call your vet, preferably with a description of the chocolate your pet ate," Noble said. "Knowing the kind and amount of chocolate really helps. For instance, milk chocolate has less theobromine in than dark chocolate, and cooking-chocolate can have a lot of theobromine."

He also advised keeping dogs away from fruitcakes and Christmas pudding, desserts which usually contain raisins and grapes, which can also be poisonous to some dogs.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.