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VA Tech Expert Details Hidden Dangers of Chocolate and Candy to Your Pet’s Health

As Valentine’s Day approaches (or most any day for many : )), you may be planning to enjoy some chocolates and candies. While these sweet treats delight us, they can pose significant risks to our pets. Understanding what’s enjoyable for us but might be harmful for our furry friends is important during this sweet holiday.

“As pet owners, we understand how tempting it can be to share treats with your pets. They look at you with those adorable eyes, begging for a bite of whatever you eat. But as responsible pet parents, we must resist the urge to share our chocolates and candies with them,” said Jenny Marin, a clinical assistant professor at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

Marin shares the following advice for pet owners to understand why your Valentine’s Day box of chocolate and candy is harmful for pets.   

Q: What’s harmful about chocolate and candy for pets?

“The primary danger that chocolate poses to pets, particularly dogs, is a compound called theobromine. Theobromine is a stimulant that affects the nervous system and cardiovascular systems of pets. While humans can efficiently metabolize theobromine, pets cannot. As a result, it can build up to toxic levels in their system, leading to serious health complications.”

“Candy, on the other hand, contains high amounts of sugar that can lead to obesity, dental problems, and diabetes in pets. Some candies also contain artificial sweeteners like xylitol, which can be highly toxic to pets. Just like chocolate, pets cannot metabolize xylitol, leading to a rapid decrease in their blood sugar levels and potentially causing liver failure.”

Q: What are the health risks of chocolate to pets? 

“The health risks of chocolate to pets can range from mild to severe, depending on the quantity ingested and the size of the pet. The symptoms of chocolate poisoning in pets can include restlessness, excessive thirst, abdominal discomfort, muscle tremors, irregular heartbeat, high body temperature, seizures, and in severe cases, death.”

“Dark chocolate and unsweetened baking chocolate have the highest levels of theobromine and pose the most significant risk to pets. The effects of chocolate poisoning can take several hours to show.”

“While dogs are most affected due to their tendency to eat anything they find, cats and other pets are also at risk.”

Q: What are the dangers of candy and artificial sweeteners for pets?

“Like chocolate, candies, and artificial sweeteners can pose significant health risks to pets. Xylitol can cause a rapid decrease in a pet’s blood sugar levels, leading to symptoms such as weakness, vomiting, loss of coordination, seizures, and, in severe cases, liver failure. Even a small amount of xylitol can be deadly to pets. It’s in many sugar-free candies, gum, baked goods, and peanut butter brands.”

Q: What to do if your pet eats chocolate or candy?

“If your dog consumes only one or two small milk chocolates, it’s unlikely they will experience a toxic reaction, especially if it’s a bigger dog. However, the situation becomes more concerning if you’re baking brownies and your pet snatches a bunch of baker’s chocolate off the countertop. The amount of chocolate, the type of chocolate, especially if it’s like gourmet dark chocolate, and the size of your dog are all important.”

“If you suspect your pet has ingested chocolate or candy, acting quickly is crucial. The first step  is to call one of the pet poison hotlines, such as the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. Another alternative and valuable resource is the Pet Poison Helpline.”

“If you do end up at the veterinarian, provide as much information as possible about what your pet has ingested. This can help the vet determine the best course of action. Depending on the severity of the situation, your pet may need to stay at the clinic or hospital for monitoring and treatment.”

Marin says that prevention is the best way to protect your pets from the dangers of chocolates and candies. She offers the following tips for preventing pet accidents and securing your sweets.

  • Keep all chocolates and candies out of your pets’ reach. Store them in high cabinets or locked drawers.
  • Dispose of wrappers properly. The smell may attract pets and eat the wrappers, leading to choking or intestinal blockage.
  • If you’re giving or receiving chocolates or candies as gifts, ensure they’re stored securely before and after opening.

Jenny Marin is a veterinarian and clinical assistant professor at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. Since 2022, she has been a faculty member in community practice and small animal clinical sciences at the veterinary college. Her research interests lie in general practice small animal dentistry, low-stress veterinary visits, fear-free handling, and providing high-quality preventative care. More here.   

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