The husband on the other end of the phone sounded worried to death. "Doctor, I just took little Orvie outside to do his business, and I saw that his poop has a lot of blood in it. Oh Doctor, he's all we have! What should we do?"

Little Orvie (Orville is his real name) is an extremely spoiled, three-year-old, obese Pekingese whose owners live in the village. After calming the husband down, I asked him about the color of the blood, how much there was, whether it had any mucus, etc. He told me the feces was full of bright red blood. He was sure of this because it was early December, and the fresh snow on the ground created a perfect contrast to the bloody stool.

Not good, I thought to myself, and told him to bring Orvie and a sample of his poop in to the office right away. Just like in ourselves, rectal bleeding or bloody stools should never be ignored.

When the husband gave me the poop sample, a quick glance showed me there were, indeed, flecks of bright red blood in it. Frank blood (in medicine, bright red, fresh-looking blood is referred to as frank blood) usually indicates a potentially serious problem that can range from a serious tear in the bowel to rectal polyps or cancer.

On physical examination, however, I could find nothing at all wrong with Orvie. His little bulging Pekingese eyes were bright, his coat was lustrous and shiny, and his heart rate sounded normal. Most important, his gums and mucous membranes were pink. This dispelled any fears I had about serious internal bleeding. The digital rectal exam was also normal. Having no idea what was going on, I asked to see the feces again.

I broke off a small chunk and examined the cut edge with a magnifying glass. But this time, not only did I see the red flakes, I also saw bright green and silver ones as well. I chuckled briefly to myself; I'd seen this problem before. Then, while forcing myself to suppress the urge to laugh (because the owner was still quite anxious and worried), I looked up, and as reverently as I could, I asked the owner if he or his wife were missing any chocolate Hershey's Kisses.

Slightly taken aback by the question, he thought about it for a second. And as he did, a smile of inner revelation overcame his worried countenance. "You know, Doc," he said, "now that you mention it, my wife did say she was missing a dish full of Kisses. She always buys a couple of bags for when the grandkids come over. They look so nice in their Christmas holiday colors sitting on the living room coffee table. Son of a gun, do you think Orvie ate them?" Yes, I did, and he was very lucky. This time!

When I think about all of the emergency calls I get during all hours of the day, one of the most common involves dogs eating chocolate. From brownies to chocolate fudge cake mixes, from Hershey's Kisses to imported Belgian chocolate-covered cherries, everyone wants to know, "Doc, can chocolate kill my dog?" The answer is, yes, yes, yes. It can!

Chocolate contains a methylxanthine compound called theobromine, which can be lethal to dogs. (Another famous methylxanthine compound we all know is caffeine.) Symptoms of theobromine toxicity include vomiting, rapid breathing, stumbling and incoordination, hyperactivity, and most famous of all, SUDDEN DEATH.

As I've said many times before, dogs (and cats) are not just furry miniature people. Their body organs and metabolisms are way different than ours. A dog's inability to digest chocolate is a good example of this difference. Our bodies can eliminate the methylxanthine compounds in chocolate in three to four hours; dogs can take up to eighteen to accomplish the same task. The problem with this is that the longer these compounds stay in their bodies, the more damage that can be done.

The amounts of chocolate needed to cause serious harm varies according to the size of the dog and the type of chocolate consumed. Also, because no one has ever done a controlled study to learn exactly how much is needed to kill dogs, there is a large range of numbers with regards to what is and what is not lethal.

In my practice, I consider the lethal dose of theobromine to be 50 mg per pound of dog. Milk chocolate generally contains 45 mg of theobromine per ounce; pure chocolate (unsweetened baking chocolate) can contain up to 400 mg per ounce. For readers who may not be used to calculating in milligrams, my quick rule of thumb is: 2 oz. of sweet milk chocolate will kill a 1-kg (2.2-pound) dog. With pure chocolate (baker's chocolate), which again, contains ten times the amount of theobromine, the number I go by is: 5 oz. will kill a 45-pound dog.

If your dog consumes large amounts of chocolate, you should call your veterinarian immediately. When people call me, the first thing I try to determine is whether or not the pet has consumed a potentially deadly dose. If we decide the dog did eat a lethal amount, or if the owner and I can't come to a definite conclusion on the problem, the first thing I do is coach the owners on getting the dog to vomit.

Afterwards, I have them bring the dog in to the office so that I can administer activated charcoal in order to absorb as much of the theobromine as possible from the stomach and intestines. If the dog is showing signs of poisoning, I'll keep it in the hospital. Unfortunately, if the symptoms have progressed too far, it can be a real challenge to save these poor guys.

In closing, remember that timing is important. As soon as you know or suspect your dog has eaten a large amount of chocolate, call your vet. Thank you.

Copyright 2004 by Richard Orzeck, DVM.
The information in this article is based upon the author’s personal experiences, his opinions, and his best interpretation of the data at the time of writing. It is not intended to render veterinary advice or service. Specific needs and questions concerning your pet’s health should always, always, always, be addressed by his or her best friend, their local veterinarian.


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