The day after Halloween seems to be the unofficial start of the holiday season and is also practically Sharkita’s adoptiversary. During this is the time of year, pet poison hotlines report a substantial increase in call volume. Around the holidays we indulge in rich food items and often have guests or engage in travel with our dogs. This can be a recipe for a food obsessed dog (which is in reality the majority of dogs, they are scavengers after all) to get herself into trouble. If asked to “pick my poison,” I would definitely say chocolate—the darker the better. Unfortunately Spokespup Sharkita has the same inclination.
For humans, dark chocolate provides flavonoids and unsaturated fats (great for your heart), has higher anti-oxidant activity than acai berries, and is even good for your skin and brain. This is one nutritional powerhouse, however, that we should never share with our canine friends. Thanks to the stimulant theobromine, chocolate is poisonous to dogs.
As a former pet care professional and dog trainer, I should have perfected the art of pup-proofing, boast a model dog with sterling behavior, and possess a shortage of scary dog stories. But I’m only human, and Shark is very much a dog. As the owner of a pet food company I'd like to be able to say that my dog is highly discerning and only craves our delicious cooking. Unfortunately nothing would be further from the truth. In the interest of providing useful information, I’m willing to embarrass myself here by sharing some of her chocolate chronicles.
Before I begin, please keep in mind that I’m not a vet, and therefore do not consider this mea culpa as sound veterinary advice. If you suspect that your dog has ingested something harmful, gather as much information as possible about what and how much was consumed and call an animal poison control hotline or your veterinarian ASAP.
Sharkita got her first taste for chocolate while I was visiting my good friend, awesome nutritionist and extraordinary baker, Kerri-Ann Jennings in Burlington, VT. Kerri-Ann had baked a dark chocolate espresso cake for her father’s birthday, and it was cooling on a baking rack. We had just taken a morning excursion with a then adolescent Shark. Upon returning to the apartment, Kerri-Ann lingered outside to make a phone call, and I went straight to the bathroom. While I was otherwise occupied, I heard a clang of metal and rushed into the kitchen to find Sharkita snout deep in the cake. While she didn’t ingest enough to cause any symptoms, she did ruin the cake… and, it seems, develop a chocolate tooth to rival my own.
The next incident took place on Mother’s Day, appropriately while visiting my mother. Somehow the fridge had been left slightly ajar while my mom showed me something in the garden. We returned to find Sharkita’s head inside the fridge chomping away at an enormous milk chocolate bunny left over from Easter. It appeared that she had eaten quite a bit. I didn’t panic because the toxicity of chocolate correlates directly with how dark it is. Milk chocolate is relatively low in theobromine, whereas baking chocolate or raw cacao are much more dangerous in smaller amounts. To be sure, I checked an online chocolate toxicity calculator, like this one from PetMD. Based on Shark’s weight of 57 lbs., even in the highly unlikely event that she had consumed an entire pound of bunny, her toxicity risk would be mild to moderate. Since she seemed fine, we took a mother-daughter trip to the Woodstock dog run in mom’s car and watched Shark romp for a bit. On the drive home, an overpowering chocolate aroma suddenly filled the car. I turned around to witness Shark vomiting a mixture of chocolate and water all over the backseat of her car… and my mother’s purse. Happy Mother’s Day! Three years later that car still has a faintly detectable chocolate smell. Beyond that, Shark exhibited no other symptoms.
(By now you may have noticed the running theme of travel. We learn quickly how to keep our own food out of dogs’ way, and our dogs learn what is effectively off limits at home. However, dogs don’t generalize very well, which means that even though my kitchen counter is forbidden, my mother’s is fair game as far as Shark is concerned, until she learns otherwise. In the interest of being a better house guest, or at least retaining the possibility of being invited back places, I now warn hosts that Shark is a food-seeking missile and take a much more hands-on management approach in other people’s homes.)
The scariest episode occurred on another visit to my parents (which you might call scary in its own right—it was the first time they were meeting my boyfriend Noah). We all went out to dinner, sans Shark, only to return and discover that she jail-broke the “dog safe” room in which we had left her with a tasty bone. Scattered across the kitchen were wrapper remains of close to $40 worth of incredibly dark chocolate from Fruition Chocolate (amazing small-batch Hudson Valley Chocolatier, seriously the best chocolate I’ve ever had). Shark was bouncing off the walls, and there was no doubt in my mind that she had ingested a toxic dose. It was nighttime upstate, so there were no emergency veterinary options.
We had no choice but to induce vomiting. In order to do this, we only had to look as far as the medicine cabinet. Fun fact: hydrogen peroxide at 3% strength is basically ipecac for dogs. The recommended dosage is one teaspoon for every 10 pounds of dog. This means that Shark required 6 teaspoons for an effective dose. I was panicking, and my parents are not dog people. Thankfully Noah sprung to action and, with the aid of a turkey baster, managed to administer the hydrogen peroxide. We then took her outside and waited. Within 20 minutes, Shark was once again a living chocolate fountain, but we weren’t out of the woods yet. While we certainly caught her within two hours, she had already absorbed enough theobromine to be exhibiting symptoms, so we would have to keep a close eye on her. Shark made this part easy for us by keeping us up all night, and her behavior left no doubt in my mind that she was under the effect of a stimulant—she had the frenzied energy of a college kid experimenting with party drugs and spent hours pacing around the room, panting and nudging us to engage with her.
I’m lucky that Shark is a large dog, because the amount that she ingested could have killed a dog half her size. Still, come morning, I was curious about potential long-term effects of chocolate poisoning. After much research I learned (thankfully) that while there are no known residual effects of these past incidents, chocolate toxicity does have one potential ramification: higher risk for future poisoning. It turns out that some dogs—like some people—truly have an affinity for chocolate, and chocolate poisoning can occur many times throughout their lives. My dog is a chocoholic, and it’s my responsibility to keep her safe with careful management practices.