Yesterday was National Chocolate Day and I spent more than six hundred dollars on chocolate, thanks to Roxy our bright eyed lab mix. I have only myself to blame for leaving a half bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips out on the kitchen counter. These kinds of things are worth a second thought and I’ll explain why in this cautionary tale.
I returned home from an errand at about suppertime yesterday and discovered the evidence: a chewed bag, empty of chocolate chips and a skulking dog. My first reaction was mild. Although I had never dealt with our dog eating chocolate before I had some vague knowledge that it was a potential concern. I sat down to confirm the details on the Internet. A quick scan showed me that yes when your dog eats chocolate it can be a problem and–what really caught my eye–was that the darker the chocolate the more the problem. Semi-sweet chocolate chips, the darling ingredient of the classic chocolate chip cookie, contain nearly twice the amount of theobromine and three times the amount of caffeine as milk chocolate. These stimulants may give people a pleasant buzz but dogs really can’t handle it.
I decided that maybe I should just call the vet. St. Francis Animal & Bird Pet Hospital offered great assistance immediately. I told them that probably about 6 ounces worth of chocolate was involved. They quickly did a calculation based on our dog’s most recently recorded weight, 42 pounds. (There is a handy device online called the Dog Chocolate Toxicity Meter which helps in the same way). Roxy was in the moderate to severe range for chocolate poisoning. The vet advised two choices for a course of action: I could bring Roxy to the clinic or I could try to get her to throw up at home. If the latter didn’t work I should bring her in. I was advised on the amount of emetic required for a dog Roxy’s size.
I made a rushed dash to the drugstore to get hydrogen peroxide and a syringe. My son helped me wrestle Roxy down in the back yard while I squirted 50 ml of the liquid into her throat. I then picked up a rake and tidied the fall leaves while watching her to make sure she got rid of the chocolate in her belly. She dashed about, rolling in the leaves like a puppy; more hyper than usual I noted. A possible sign that the chocolate was affecting her. She did not cough up the offending chocolate after half an hour so I reluctantly made the decision to take no chances and bring her to the vet. An urgent care visit would cost $68 and each additional procedure and pill would really add up but I didn’t really know what the risk of not treating her was.
My son and I waited in the vet’s office lobby while the technicians took Roxy away for about a half hour. Dr. Roeser administered apomorphine to get her to vomit. It worked to get “a lot of the chocolate” out of her belly and then they monitored her heart with an ECG. The concern with chocolate poisoning in dogs is that it can affect the heart and, simply put, can lead to heart failure. Unfortunately for Roxy, her chocolate treat didn’t just result in a bellyache; she was showing signs of elevated heart rate which meant that even though we had acted quickly to get her to throw up (within four hours of eating the chocolate) there were signs of a dangerous reaction with a heart rate greater than 200 beats per minute.
The vet’s office was about to close for the day and they recommended that we take her to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center (VMC), part of the College of Veterinary Medicine. There they could monitor and treat her all night if needed. Luckily it is near our house and familiar; Roxy has spent a lot of time there recently for knee surgery and rehabilitation. The vet dosed her with charcoal to absorb some of what might remain in her belly and we drove her over to the VMC.
At the VMC Roxy was seen by Efa Llewellyn, a resident. When examined Roxy had a fever and “a markedly elevated heart rate ranging between 200-220 beats per minute,” A normal heart rate for dogs can vary with their size, type and other factors but a normal range is overall between 60 to 140 beats per minute.
We were advised to leave her in their care overnight so that they could treat and monitor her. The cost would be close to $1000. As a pet owner for many years I cannot count the number of times I have felt a great weight come upon me when deciding to spend money like this on a pet’s healthcare. I suggested that since we live so nearby perhaps we could care for her and monitor her at home, rushing her back if needed. In the end it was agreed that I would wait while they gave Roxy another hour or so of treatment to see if they could lower her heart rate. Then the option to monitor her at home would make more sense.
My husband showed up and we passed the time in the lobby waiting until about 10 p.m., five hours after the chocolate incident. Dr. Llewellyn finally emerged to tell us that she thought it would be okay to take her home. She had received a drug called acepromazine to calm her heart beat and indeed her heart rate was down to 150 beats per minute. Additionally she had received a hydration injection to dilute the toxins in her body and encourage clearing traces from her bladder.
We took home a bottle of activated charcoal to add to her morning meal. It will help soak up any remaining toxic components from the chocolate. Dr. Llewellyn showed us how to put our hand over Roxy’s heart and count the beats. (Multilpy by four the number of beats felt in 15 seconds to get beats per minute.) She also advised that we bring her back if there was vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, seizures, difficulty walking, difficulty breathing or weakness, or any other concerning signs. Clinical signs of chocolate poisoning can take several hours to develop, and even longer to go away so I expect to watch her for the next couple of days. Dr. Llewellyn cautioned that theobromine can persist in the system, being re-absorbed from the bladder, so we should push water and take her for more walks to encourage urination.
As I write Roxy is dozing comfortably at my feet. She seems to be okay 20 hours after eating chocolate chips. In her case early treatment was helpful. The vet recently called to see how she is doing. I was happy to report that she is well. Bottom line: if your dog has ingested chocolate, check with the vet. With Halloween a few days away it’s good to be just a little bit scared.