We’ve all been there. You’re at a party or some other social gathering, and someone’s unattended dog chows down on a whole plate of chocolate while nobody’s looking — or possibly while everybody is looking. It’s a stressful scenario because chocolate is literally the number one thing we all know to keep away from dogs. Next thing you know, you’re giving your dog a few milliliters of hydrogen peroxide and it vomits up the Hersey’s bar onto the floor a few minutes later. The odds of this miserable experience happening are much higher around the holidays, new research has found.
In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Vet Record, a team of English researchers report that dogs are four times more likely to experience chocolate intoxication during the winter holidays as other times of the year (except during Easter, when they’re twice as likely as usual). The study’s authors say there are a few factors that can account for this dramatic increase, including the simple fact that there’s more chocolate around during winter holidays.
“Here the authors describe significant peaks of chocolate intoxication, most notably at Christmas and to a lesser extent Easter, presumably reflecting the enhanced availability of seasonally-related chocolate such as Easter eggs, chocolate Santa Claus figurines and Christmas tree decorations, possibly in the hands of younger members of society,” write the study’s authors, a team of biologists, veterinarians, and epidemiologists at the University of Liverpool in England.
To conduct this study, these researchers combed through almost 3 million narrative reports from 500 different veterinary offices between 2012 and 2017, finally narrowing them down to 1,722 that referred to chocolate. Out of these, they found that only 386 fit the clinical definition of chocolate exposure. From these 386 cases, they found that chocolate exposure was more than four times as likely to occur around Christmas than non-holiday dates. They didn’t identify any particular breed of dog that’s more likely to get poisoned by chocolate.
Why Chocolate is Bad for Your Dog: Theobromine
You’re not supposed to feed your dog human food, but chocolate is even worse than most human foods because it contains theobromine. This compound is a stimulant, like caffeine, that scientists say is partly responsible for why eating chocolate makes us feel good, and possible for some of chocolate’s health benefits.
But we’re not dogs. For dogs, theobromine can cause symptoms that look like stimulant overdose: elevated heart rate, vomiting, and agitation.
Interestingly, this paper found that older dogs — four years old or older — were considerably less likely than younger dogs to expose themselves to chocolate. They didn’t offer an explanation for this effect, but it seems possible that these older dogs either learned from youthful mistakes, are better trained than their younger counterparts, or simply don’t have as much puppy energy that leads a dog to snatch food off a table.
All of this is to say that we’re entering the time of year when your dog is most likely to get sick from eating chocolate, so watch out. Teach young ones about the dangers of feeding dogs chocolate, and maybe move that tray of cookies from the coffee table up onto the counter.