The winter of 2013-14 has been particularly on hard all of us – our furry friends included! We are all chomping at the bit to get out there, enjoy some sunshine and get spring into full swing. As we open our windows, clear our yards and immerse ourselves (finally!) in the nicer weather, here are some things to keep in mind to help keep your furry family members safe and healthy this season.
Spring means Easter is nigh – which means, of course, CHOCOLATE! Who doesn’t love chocolate?! Our dogs generally seem to! Of course, most of us know that chocolate is not good for dogs – and here’s why:
Chocolate contains a compound called theobromine, which is a methylxanthine similar in structure and function to caffeine (which would also cause toxicity to dogs in high enough volume, but dogs seem to prefer chocolate to coffee!). Chocolate toxicity is ‘dose-dependent’, which means that the more the animal ingests, the higher the chance of a toxicity event/more severe signs of toxicity. Clinical signs of chocolate toxicity range from mild gastrointestinal signs (especially diarrhea) to significant neurological signs, like seizures. In between, we’ll often see signs consistent with a ‘stimulant’, – elevated heart rate, increased thirst, drooling, signs of nervousness/agitation and considerable diarrhea. Clinical signs can begin at doses of 20mg/kg of theobromine (GI signs), about 40mg/kg for cardiovascular effects to appear, and >60mg/kg for neurological signs. Fatality is uncommon, but can occur with doses upwards of 200mg/kg (or with complications from lower doses, such as cardiac arrhythmias). For frame of reference, milk chocolate can contain up to 58mg of theobromine per ounce, as compared to dark chocolate, which can contain up to 450mg per ounce. White chocolate contains a negligible amount of theobromine (but watch out for the fat and sugar!). Clinical signs can take hours or even days to develop, and similar timelines for signs to resolve. This is because theobromine has a long ‘half-life’, which refers to the length of time it takes the body to eliminate half the amount of toxin ingested.
Treatment for chocolate toxicity depends on the dose – more often than not, doggie has gotten hold of a few milk chocolate eggs and may have diarrhea for a day or two. For these dogs, a bland diet and maybe some pepto bismol (always check with your vet before giving your dog any medications!) will often be more than enough. For more severe cases, further supportive treatment is necessary, such as hospitalization, sedation and intravenous fluids to help flush the toxins out.
It’s important to remember that the real danger for dogs is the theobromine contained in cocoa. Therefore, chocolate that contains MORE cocoa is MORE dangerous: DARK chocolate is much more dangerous than milk chocolate – there’s a lot of milk-chocolate-based candy out there that doesn’t contain a whole lot of cocoa. However, if you’re partial to the 70% cocoa dark chocolate goodies – be extra careful to keep them out of Fido’s reach! Dark chocolate may be ‘more healthy’ for humans than milk chocolate, but that definitely does not apply to dogs!
The take-home message? If your dog eats a few Smarties or a couple of milk chocolate eggs, you shouldn’t over-worry yourself (always call your vet with any questions or concerns!) – but if your dog gets into dark chocolate, it will be more important to seek care. As with any potential toxicity – the SOONER you seek treatment, the better chance you have of mitigating potentially dangerous effects.
2. Other Easter Issues
Sugar-Free Candy: If you have any special dietary needs in your household, they may include sugar restrictions. There are lots of great sugar-free treat options for humans out there, but beware: many contain a substance that is toxic to dogs, called xylitol. You may recognize it as a common ingredient in sugar-free gum. Xylitol can be toxic to dogs in a couple of different ways: first, it strongly promotes the release of insulin, which in turn drives down blood sugar to dangerous levels. This can have a subsequent effect on potassium levels, driving them down and endangering cardiac function. (Xylitol does NOT have these profound effects in people.) Secondly, by different mechanisms, xylitol can cause severe liver damage and death. Anecdotally, gum sweetened only with xylitol could cause hypoglycemia in a 10 kg dog with as few as 1 or 2 pieces. Beware this doggie-toxic chemical!!
Easter Basket Grass: I was shocked to discover that they still even SELL this stuff in our environmentally-conscious day and age, but they do: the fun-colored, plastic ‘grass’ that fills the bottoms of the kiddies’ Easter baskets. It makes the baskets look cute, and kids seem to like it. Guess who LOVES it?! Kitty!! Cats seem to have a penchant for ingesting long stringy objects, and easter basket grass is a particularly tempting disaster waiting to happen. It can easily get stuck in your cat’s gastrointestinal system; maybe as a ball in the stomach, or worse, what we call a ‘linear foreign body’: lodged in its extended form, anchored somewhere so it is unable to pass through. Both of these situations would require hospitalization and surgery, and the latter has the potential to cause severe collateral damage to the gastrointestinal tract. My advice for households with kitty cats? Forget the easter basket grass altogether and focus on the main event: the candy!!
Lilies: Easter Lilies are a lovely decoration for the holiday, but if you have any cats, evaluate carefully if you really want them at all, and if so, where to safely keep them. True lilies, including Easter, Tiger, Japanese show, Day and Asiastic lilies are all profoundly toxic to cats. Ingestion of even a small piece of a leaf or flower can cause toxicity. Gastrointestinal signs begin within hours of ingestion (nausea and vomiting), and subsequently (and most dangerously), acute kidney failure develops within 5 days. Timely treatment is IMPERATIVE in potentially affected cats: If signs are noticed and aggressive treatment begins within 6 hours, most cats will not become gravely ill. However, if treatment is delayed past the 18-hour mark, kidney failure is almost certain to follow, and mortality rates for those unfortunate cats are from 50 – 100%. Please take extra care with lilies around kitties this spring!
Stay tuned for more info about outdoor spring hazards in the garden.