Easter is a celebration of the Christian faith, but in our modern secular world, it’s known more for the celebration of eating chocolate, in the form of Easter eggs.
Chocolate is a popular treat for humans, but it’s also the most common poison to affect dogs: in the UK, there are nearly 2000 cases reported every year.
A small dog can die after eating a single Easter egg. The chemical in chocolate that gives humans a pleasant buzz – theobromine – has a highly toxic effect on dogs, rapidly poisoning the heart and brain.
A small chocolate indulgence that would be an enjoyable treat for a human can kill a dog, and the toxic dose is surprisingly small. Half a small bar of dark chocolate – around 50g (2 ounces) – is enough to end the life of a little terrier weighing 5kg. Milk chocolate is less dangerous, needing twice as much for the same effect. A standard Easter egg may weigh around 200g, which means that half an egg can be enough to kill a small dog.
Small dogs are much more at risk: the toxic effect is dose-dependent, so a 50kg German Shepherd would need to eat ten times as much chocolate as a 5kg terrier to be affected.
There is a misconception about the main source of risk to dogs: while it is not advisable to give morsels of chocolates as treats, it is rare for dogs to be poisoned in this way. Far more commonly, dogs die after stealing chocolate. Dogs love eating chocolate and they don’t have an “off switch” when they are full. They just keep eating until the chocolate is finished.
Two years ago, my own dog Kiko managed to steal an unopened box of chocolates from the kitchen table when she was alone in the room. I had to give her emergency treatment to empty her stomach.
I was fortunate that as a vet, I had the drugs available to cause her to vomit, but what should an owner do in a similar situation?
You need to act quickly. If the chocolate is removed from the stomach within an hour, there’s a good chance that this will be soon enough to prevent serious ill effects of poisoning.
Work out exactly how much chocolate, and what type of chocolate, your dog has eaten, in grams. Write this down.
Weigh your dog, and write this down too.
Phone your vet and explain what has happened. If it is after-hours, then call the emergency vet. It’s an urgent crisis and there is no time to waste.
The vet should be able to advise you whether or not you need to take action: this will be calculated from the quantity and type of chocolate and the size of the dog. If there is a risk, the vet may tell you how to attempt to make the dog vomit at home (this is not always possible) or may recommend that you rush the animal in to see the vet at once (the vet can give an injection that immediate induces vomiting).
The most important message is “DO NOT DELAY”. Once the chocolate has been absorbed into the
dog’s bloodstream, there’s sometimes little that can be done to help. The signs of poisoning start within six hours of the chocolate being eaten, reaching a peak at around twelve hours. Classic signs include restlessness, vomiting and diarrhoea, with tremors, convulsions and heart failure following soon after. Even with treatment, some dogs survive but many don’t. I see dogs dying of chocolate poisoning every year.
All of the crises that I’ve seen have involved dogs stealing chocolate that has been left within their reach. This weekend, by all means enjoy your Easter eggs, but whatever you do, please keep them out of the reach of your dogs.