Pet health Halloween hazards

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By: Fiona Lee Caldwell DVM
For Pets Best Insurance
Two small puppies feast on Halloween candy, which can be a pet health issue.

Halloween and other winter holidays are just around the corner! While celebrating these occasions can be fun and exciting, it’s important to remember some of the dangers that the holidays can bring to pet health.

Halloween always comes with costumes, trick-or-treating, and lots of candy– but some candy can be dangerous for your pets, especially chocolate candy. Most people know that chocolate is toxic to dogs and can cause severe dog health care issues, but few of us actually know why. Chocolate toxicity is one of the most common ‘poisonings’ seen in veterinary medicine and can be fatal if left untreated.

Chocolate contains a caffeine-like substance called theobromine that dogs are very sensitive to, more so than humans. Theobromine is obtained from the plant Theobroma cocoa and is present in chocolate, cocoa, tea, cocoa beans and cocoa bean hulls. This substance causes the body to release catecholamines, which are the ‘fight or flight’ hormones released during extreme stress, and can cause muscles to contract. When skeletal muscles (the ones in arms and legs) contract muscle tremors are seen, but smooth muscle located in the intestines and in other areas of the body can contract as well, causing GI upset and other clinical signs of pet health issues.

Catecholamines are stimulants, like caffeine, and can cause an increased heart rate and blood pressure. In high doses, theobromine can be lethal to dogs. Clinical signs of theobromine or chocolate toxicity can include tremors, shaking, vomiting, diarrhea, heart arrhythmias and even seizures.

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Theobromine stays in a dog’s body almost three times as long as in humans, 17.5 hours versus 6 hours in people. Dark chocolate and unsweetened baking chocolate are the most dangerous to dog health care. This type of chocolate contains the most theobromine per ounce, about ten times as much as that contained in milk chocolate. Just 5 ounces of unsweetened baking chocolate could be lethal in a 10 pound dog.

Baked goods, such as cookies and cake are less dangerous, unless eaten in large quantities. Most halloween candies are made with the less concentrated milk chocolate, but dogs can vary in their sensitivity to theobromine. Thus, the smaller amounts found in candy can also be dangerous or cause serious illness in a pet with increased sensitivity to it. In addition, any sweet treat eaten in excess can cause GI upset, called gastroenteritis. While most gastroenteritis cases are not fatal, hospitalization is often needed to treat the symptoms, which can include vomiting, diarrhea and other pet health problems.

While there is no ‘reversal’ for theobromine and chocolate toxicity, if brought to a veterinary clinic promptly many dogs can be saved with appropriate and timely treatment. Treatment includes inducing vomiting if the pet has eaten the chocolate recently and administering activated charcoal, a substance that acts like a sponge and can help prevent theobromine from being absorbed through the lining of the GI tract. Some pets will need additional treatment to help prevent seizures and lower elevated blood pressure if present.

Contact your veterinarian immediately if you are concerned your pet may have ingested chocolate. Preventing your dog’s access to candy during Halloween is the best way to keep him or her safe so everyone can enjoy the costumes and trick-or-treating!

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