Happy Groundhog Day Everybody!

Death by chocolate

I don’t know about you, Bored Surfer, but I, for one, feel there are not enough paid holidays recognizing the contributions of weather predicting rodents. Perhaps if Punxsutawney Phil’s forecasting was accurate even 50% of the time, he’d get more respect, and we would all be compelled to take the day off to bask in his glory.  A proper Groundhog Day celebration would consist primarily of waking up early (to the sound of Sonny and Cher), looking outside and saying “Eh. It’s cold out there. I’m going back to bed.” I know the six-week snooze button is not realistic, but crawling back into a nice, cozy nest on a dreary February day is very gratifying. I highly recommend it.

Welcome back to BLOG blog. Before I resume my ramblings, there are a few minor details I need to mention. First of all, if you have not read the disclaimers featured in the January edition, please go back and familiarize yourself with them. Secondly, as also mentioned in the previous installment, I shall now and forevermore refer to you, my audience, as Bored Surfer. Finally, it has occurred to me that while I have a name for you, I do not have one for your pet. I mentioned “your pet” many, many times last month, and will need to refer to him/her many, many more times in the future, so they need a temporary name. So I am going to select an all-encompassing pet name to apply to your dog or cat, be it male or female, for the duration of each BLOG blog. 

A couple of weeks after the Day of the Glorious Woodchuck comes Presidents Day. It started as an observance of George Washington’s birthday on Feb 22 (History.com), but was eventually expanded to include all U.S. Presidents, regardless of their accomplishments. It has since devolved into a 3 day weekend for bureaucrats, and an excuse for mattress sales. The latter are, perhaps, in homage to the historic signs that read “George Washington slept here”, although they could also be a reference to the notion that studying history puts the average American to sleep. Anyway, in honor of President’s Day, I shall henceforth refer to your pet as “Fillmore”.

There is another, more sinister, holiday in February. According to History.com and Wikipedia, on February 14, 1929, in the Lincoln Park garage in Chicago, seven associates of Irish mobster George “Bugs” Moran were shot by unknown assailants who were dressed as policemen. There is speculation that Al Capone, as well as the Chicago police department, were involved. Since the allure of sex sells (and dead gangsters not so much), St. Valentine’s Day returned to its roots as a Roman fertility festival (see Britannica.com for a polite history, see lifehacker.com for a more ribald version), and, by extension, love. Love is great for retailers, because it can easily be implied by one’s willingness to purchase specially overpriced flowers, candy and jewelry. The bombardment of boyfriend/hubby shaming advertisements even lends a nice aura of romantic extortion, in memory of that fateful day.

Since the Valentine paraphernalia has been on the shelves for well over a month already, you probably have some delicious seasonal confections in your home. Surely those treats are safely hidden, quietly awaiting their fate (which is most likely to be gifted, devoured in a sudden overpowering craving, or eaten surreptitiously by your kids). Sometimes, however, Fillmore gets there first.

Oh @#$%^&*! Fillmore got into my chocolate! Everyone knows chocolate is toxic to pets! What should I do?

The obvious answer to this dilemma is to travel back in time and find a better hiding place for your sweet stash. If your time machine is not working (it can be very difficult to get parts for a malfunctioning flux capacitor), you will need another course of action. Here’s what I (with a little help from petpoisonhelpline.com and merckvetmanual.com) recommend:

First, stop and take a deep breath.  Then use that breath to yell loud enough that everyone in the house reports immediately to the site of the incident. 

Next, gather as much information as possible. First and foremost, was it in fact Fillmore who ate the chocolate, or is there a guilty-looking child with suspicious smudges on their hands, face and clothing? Are there multiple suspects? If you have a cat and a Lab, it would be highly unlikely that the cat was the culprit. Cats will occasionally eat chocolate, but the overwhelming majority of chocolate-eating Fillmores are dogs.  If, however, you have 2 Beagles, they were probably both involved.

    When could the incident have occurred? Find out the earliest time that Fillmore was alone with the chocolate, and assume it was engulfed as soon as everyone was out of sight. It is best if you seek veterinary advice as soon as you can.  Please don’t wait a week and then report that Fillmore has been vomiting for 6 days after he ate 3 lbs of M&Ms.

    Next, consider what was consumed. Hopefully some wrappers were left behind to give you an idea of the amount and particular variety of chocolate that was eaten.  As every woman knows, all chocolates are not created equal.  Darker chocolates (baking chocolate, semi-sweet morsels and bars that brag about their cacao percentage) are potentially more toxic than milk chocolate; white chocolate doesn’t really count as chocolate at all.

    Is there any evidence of aftermath? Is Fillmore especially bloated? Have any mysterious malodorous piles appeared? Is Fillmore acting sick? An affirmative answer to these questions suggests the incident happened hours ago, and absorption has already occurred. 

    Now that you have some idea what has transpired, you can call your vet’s office or your local veterinary emergency clinic. They will ask you for the above specifics, and hopefully offer you helpful advice. The advice will vary with the situation, but I will now present to you some possible situations.

    Best case scenario – Ideally, you would get ½ price Godiva on Feb 15, and be allowed to eat it in peace. Barring that, the most favorable of the-dog-ate-my-chocolate scenarios is as follows: Fillmore is a 150 lb St. Bernard who has eaten a few (paper-wrapped) Tootsie Rolls. Good news! This represents a very low dose of not terribly concentrated chocolate, and wrappers that should pass without incident. He should not be in danger from that level of chocolate exposure. If she has an extremely sensitive stomach, you may find yourself cleaning up some vomit or diarrhea, but chances are good that he will not experience any adverse effects. 

Pretty Decent Scenario – Fillmore is a 90 lb Lab who made your giant 1 lb Hershey bar disappear, sometime in the last 2 hours while you were at a movie. Fortunately, this is not a toxic level of chocolate for this size dog.  Unfortunately, he will most likely have some messy GI symptoms (if she hasn’t already) and you’ll probably want to visit the vet and have it treated.

Not So Good Scenario – Fillmore is a 30 lb Beagle who was caught in the act of eating a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips. It appears almost half of the 12 oz bag is gone. This requires immediate attention.  Call at once. You may be instructed to induce vomiting at home. This is even more unpleasant than it sounds, but it is important to remove as much of the toxin as quickly as possible, before the body can absorb it. You will also be instructed to bring Fillmore to the vet’s office, or perhaps the animal emergency clinic, for fluids and other supportive care.

DANGER! DANGER! Scenario – Fillmore is a five lb Chihuahua, and was fine when you went to work this morning. Nine hours later, you return to find a mutilated box that formerly contained 4 oz of Baker’s unsweetened chocolate. The squares had been individually wrapped, but now there are just some wrapper remnants and partially chewed chocolate strewn about the house, along with multiple suspicious muddy brown piles of unknown origin. Fillmore, meanwhile, is stumbling restlessly around the house. He looks very bloated, and her breathing seems rapid and shallow. If there is a 24-hour emergency vet clinic in your area, call them immediately. Fillmore is going to need care starting as soon as possible, and continuing for up to 72 hrs.

While it is extremely unlikely that your situation would precisely match any of the above scenarios, this gives you a general idea of the possible ramifications of chocolate ingestion. The main things to remember are to gather information and then call the vet. Do not attempt to treat at home without veterinary guidance. Do not induce vomiting unless you are specifically instructed to do so.  Vomiting probably won’t help get rid of things eaten more than an hour ago; inducing vomiting in a dog who is already showing signs of toxicity will do more harm than good.

Now it is time for just a few words about the nature of chocolate toxicity. Chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine. Some animals (humans, for example) are able to metabolize these chemicals more effectively than other animals (like cats and dogs) can.  Depending on the dose, signs can vary from restlessness, vomiting and/or diarrhea and increased drinking to such things as changes in heart rate and rhythm, tremors, incoordination, seizures, and in extreme cases, coma and death.  Signs are usually apparent 6-12 hours after ingestion, and can last up to several days. 

Even if Fillmore consumed only a non-toxic of theobromine, they could still get sick. Other ingredients (such as Macadamia nuts or raisins) may be toxic in their own way. A large wad of ingested candy wrappers could potentially cause a bowel obstruction. If nothing else, the high fat content of chocolate can cause pancreatitis.

Also, please note that one of the toxic components of chocolate is caffeine. This is an added incentive to refrain from giving Red Bull to your Jack Russell Terrier (aka Parson Russell Terrier), in case you needed one.     

    The lesson of all this (hopefully entertaining) rambling is to please store your chocolate in a location inaccessible to wayward pets and children. Fillmore will not truly appreciate the taste if she gains access to it, and you will absolutely not enjoy the consequences. Not only will you have a stinky, sticky mess to clean up, the worry of potential toxicity and perhaps a trip to the emergency vet, but you won’t even be able to self-soothe with delicious, delicious chocolate.

    On that note, dear Bored Surfer, I must bid you adieu.  I hope I provided you with some helpful information, as well as a pleasant diversion. If you read this because you a devoted fan of Best Care, thank you. If you read this while standing in line, and for a few precious minutes you forgot that you were at the DMV or Wal-Mart or some other circle of Hell, you’re welcome.

Finally, to misquote Dale Evans (it was she, not Roy Rogers and not Van Halen, who took the title and first three notes of the Foy Willing song and created the now classic version, if you believe Wikipedia)…

     Happy Tails to you, until we meet again.

    Dr. Debbie Appleby