No need to freak out, a bite of chocolate won’t kill your dog

Yes, I know, chocolate is bad for dogs, very bad, in fact it can be deadly, but that is in relatively large quantities, and while it is good for dog owners to be aware of that fact, the awareness of that toxicity has been driven to some pretty ridiculous extremes. Under those circumstances I think a little perspective is in order so, to begin with, let me say that I have fed my dogs chocolate… and I did it deliberately. For the most part I did this before the internet came along, and before I knew it could even be an issue. No, I never fed my girl a chocolate bar, or anything like that, but when I went for an ice cream I routinely let her finish it off… and more often than not that ice cream included chocolate in one way or another. At home we also allowed her to lick the carton clean, and she even got the occasional square (what can I say, those puppy eyes). For her chocolate was always a very special treat. This, I suspect, is also what most people envision when they think of feeding chocolate to their dogs. Anyway, in case you were wondering, that dog lived to be seventeen. I have another one, who is currently fourteen and still going strong, and up until a few years ago she used to get the exact same treatment.

Of course, that was then. Fast forward a number of years and now I have one of my friends frantically rushing her dog to the vet because -horror upon horror- a child had dropped a chocolate chip cookie and her dog had gotten to it before anyone could stop him. Rather than set her mind at ease by telling her that she had nothing to worry about, that there’s no way a single chocolate chip cookie is going to do serious damage to her dog (which is a large dog), her vet commended her for taking him in. That was what finally got me to write this post.

Yes, I realize that this woman’s reaction was a little extreme, and I can also understand why is it that vets are not exactly trying to talk you out of overreacting. As far as they are concerned getting humans to ‘err on the side of caution’ and ‘take their dogs in just to be on the safe side’ is free money, but the fact that vets don’t seem to be inclined to be the voice of reason doesn’t mean we should let the paranoia run rampant.

So how big a threat is chocolate? Well it depends on two things: the dog, and the chocolate.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that chocolate is packaged in human sized portions, but most dogs are not exactly human sized… in fact their size varies greatly, and so does the degree of caution you should exercise. If your dog is a six pound Chihuahua you have to be fairly vigilant because in that case an errant chocolate bar can pose a serious threat. If your dog is a fully grown mastiff or a St. Bernard, on the other hand, a normal chocolate bar, while not exactly healthy, is unlikely to be an issue.

The second aspect is that not all chocolate is created equal. The toxic agent here is theobromine (a close relative of caffeine), and the darker the chocolate, the higher the content of that particular stimulant. Baker’s chocolate can have up to ten times the theobromine content of milk chocolate, while white chocolate contains at most trace amounts of the blasted thing. In other words, baker’s chocolate can be dangerous even for an average sized dog, while white chocolate is no threat at all.

When it comes to milk chocolate a rule of thumb is that a lethal dose would be around one ounce per pound of body weight (for a St. Bernard that could translate into something 140-260 oz, or more than 15 pounds/6 kilograms, but keep in mind that that would be a lethal dose, toxicity would only take a fraction of that amount).

In other words, while I’m certainly not advocating feeding chocolate to dogs, and I usually try to avoid it, I think it’s important for dog owners to educate themselves beyond a simple chocolate=bad equation. Yes, considering how readily available chocolate happens to be, awareness of the fact that there is a potential problem is a good thing, and owners of mini-toy dogs should be extremely careful, but at the same time I suspect we have now reached a point in which the threat is seriously overblown, and unfortunately there are some vets that are not above exploiting, and even feeding, those fears.

And finally, keep in mind that the fact that something is chocolate flavored doesn’t mean it is chock-full of chocolate. A good example of this fact are Oreos. Those may be chock-full of chemicals that are far from healthy, but the amount of chocolate they actually contain is basically nil.

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