Chocolate and Dogs, Cats, and People

Chocolate and Dogs, Cats, and People

I admit it, I love chocolate.

I like milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and even white chocolate. Although I'm not as attracted to other sweets nearly as much, I do love chocolate. Interestingly enough, dogs seem to be attracted to chocolate, too, even though it can be toxic (and sometimes fatally so). I know my dogs watch what I eat, wait for something to fall, and listen just in case a "leave it," tells them they can't have that dropped morsel. If no comment is forthcoming, it's eagerly eaten no matter what it is. But as a former veterinary technician, I know cases of chocolate toxicity in dogs increases around all of the holidays normally celebrated with chocolate, including Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some of it may be attributed to availability (chocolate is in the house) but it also happens because some dogs like chocolate as much as we do. Cats, however, rarely need to be treated for chocolate toxicity. A kitten who's in the discovery stage of development may nibble on a bit of chocolate, but that's fairly rare. Cats aren't attracted to it like dogs and people.

Chocolate and People

The taste buds on our tongue originated as survival tools. Things that tasted bad weren't eaten, sparing us from something that might be harmful or toxic. Things that tasted good were eaten. This system isn't fool-proof, of course, but as a primitive system, combined with our senses of sight and smell, it kept us alive as a species. The taste buds are the small bumps on the top of the tongue. Humans have about 9000 of these bumps, called papillae, that are divided into basic specialties. Originally we were taught that we had four different types of taste receptors which included sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Researchers, however, have said we also have receptors for meat and fat. Chocolate, depending on the type, can trigger sweet as well as bitter. A piece of dark chocolate with salted nuts mixed in can trigger sweet, salty and bitter. A milk chocolate might also awake the receptors for fat. All of this makes our taste buds happy. We're attracted to chocolate because it makes our taste buds happy but also because it's good. We enjoy the taste although there are individual preferences for the levels of sweet, dark or bitter, but we also enjoy the smell, the feel of it in our mouth and the melting on the tongue. It makes us happy. When we experience something we like, our brains release chemicals, the so-called feel-good neurotransmitters (primarily dopamine), which reinforces our pleasure. So when we eat chocolate and like it, our brain responds to that and we end up liking chocolate even more. It become the proverbial win-win situation. Thankfully, unlike many other animals (including dogs, cats and rats) the ingredients caffeine and theobromine are not a problem for us. In fact, many people enjoy the caffeine buzz.
©istockphoto/Nic_Ol ©istockphoto/Nic_Ol

Chocolate and Cats

Cats have 470 taste buds, most of which are sensitive to meat and fat. Our feline friends do not have the taste receptors for sweets and as a result, are rarely interested in anything sweet. Your cat may want to share your vanilla ice cream because of the dairy component, especially the fat, but the sweetness of the ice cream holds no appeal. Candy and other sweets, including chocolate, are not on your cat's menu. This lack of attraction for chocolate is good news for your cat since two of the components of chocolate, caffeine and theobromine, are toxic to all felines, large and small. For a 10 pound cat, one square of baker's chocolate can be toxic, as can one ounce of dark chocolate. A cat would need to ingest 3 ounces of milk chocolate to develop problems. Smaller cats, especially kittens, would have toxicity issues after ingesting less chocolate, of course. Symptoms of chocolate toxicity in cats includes vomiting, diarrhea, fever, rapid breathing, increased pulse, low blood pressure, muscle rigidity, seizures and death. If you think your cat (or more likely, a curious kitten) may have eaten some chocolate, call your veterinarian right away. He'll need to know how old your cat is, how much she weighs, what kind of chocolate she ate and how much. He'll then either tell you to watch your cat at home or bring her to the clinic right away for treatment.
©istockphoto/ArmadilloStock ©istockphoto/ArmadilloStock

Chocolate and Dogs

Dogs have around 1700 taste buds that are more similar to our own than a cat's. One of the biggest differences are those for salt; dogs are not as attracted to salt as people are. This is probably due to the higher salt content of meat which has always been a canine's primary food. People, however, as omnivores, needed to supplement their diet with salty foods to maintain the salt balance in the body. Dogs, however, are just as attracted to sweets as we are. Being sensitive to sweet, bitter and fat, dogs enjoy chocolate as much as we do. With their sensitive sense of smell, a dog can locate chocolate hidden in Easter eggs, in a Halloween basket or wrapped as a gift under the tree. The level of toxicity depends on the dog's size, how much chocolate is eaten and what kind of chocolate is consumed. For example, if a 10 pound dog eats 4 ounces of straight milk chocolate, dark chocolate or baker's chocolate, he's going to be in trouble and needs to see the veterinarian right away. However, a 25 pound dog will need immediate veterinary care for 4 ounces of dark chocolate or baker's chocolate, but the milk chocolate probably won't cause any problems. You'll want to call your vet, but the dog will most likely be fine. A 50 pound dog will probably be fine if he ingests 8 ounces of milk chocolate, but will need veterinary care for 8 ounces of dark or baker's chocolate. Now, those guidelines were for straight chocolate. But what if your dog eats some chocolate chip cookies, a few M&Ms or some chocolate covered cherries? It all depends on how much chocolate has been consumed. A handful of candies and a few chocolate chip cookies may cause an upset tummy, but probably won't be toxic. However, if you have any concerns, call your veterinarian. Symptoms of chocolate toxicity in dogs are the same as those in cats and include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, rapid breathing, increased pulse, low blood pressure, muscle rigidity, seizures and death.

Be Careful

If you enjoy chocolate and have it in the house often, just be careful. Don't leave a bowl of chocolate candies out; put it away. A curious cat and a dog following his nose can both get into trouble far too easily. Being careful will prevent potential heartbreak.
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