Lock up your Easter Eggs if dogs are within range
The UK's first chocolate egg was produced in 1873 by Fry's of Bristol, and since then the Easter Egg has become far bigger business than anyone could have predicted. The world's most popular egg-shaped chocolate is now Cadbury's Creme Egg, with the Birmingham factory in the UK producing 1.5 million every day for UK and global markets. In the USA, 90 million chocolate bunnies and 91.4 billion eggs are produced each year. Overall, sales of chocolate at Easter time make up 10 per cent of chocolate spending for the whole year.
It's clearly a good time of year for the chocolate trade, but all this chocolatey success brings its problems. Almost one in five children (19 per cent) say they've made themselves ill by eating too much chocolate over the Easter holidays. And the situation is far worse for animals: every year dogs die from chocolate overdose.
It's really important that people realise that a small dog can die after eating a single Easter egg. The chemical in chocolate that makes humans feel happy - theobromine - has a highly toxic effect on dogs. The canine metabolism is different to our own, and they aren't able to process theobromine in the same way. As a result, the chemical accumulates, damaging the heart and the nervous system. Chocolate is the most common poisoning to affect pets.
A small chocolate feast that would be a pleasant indulgence for a human can kill a dog.
Recently revised guidelines for intervention in cases of chocolate poisoning state that treatment is needed when a dog eats more than 3.5 g/kg dark chocolate. That means 17.5g for a small 5kg terrier (just over half an ounce) or 105g (less than four ounces) for a typical 30kg Labrador. The threshold for milk chocolate is higher, at 14 g/kg, making 70g (2.5 ounces) for a little terrier or 420g (around 15 ounces) for a Labrador.
A typical medium sized milk chocolate Easter Egg weighs around 200g, so roughly speaking, if a little dog eats half an egg, or a big dog eats two eggs, they urgently need treatment.
Many people don't realise this, and they delay taking their pet to the vet. This is why so many fatalities are seen: if a vet sees a dog within an hour of the chocolate being eaten, drugs can be given to induce vomiting, removing the chocolate from the stomach before it has had a chance to be absorbed. If over an hour passes, it's too late, and the toxic theobromine will already be in the system. If people delay taking their pet to the vet until signs of illness are seen, it's usually too late to save them.
Affected dogs have restlessness, vomiting and diarrhoea, with tremors, convulsions and heart failure following soon after. Signs of poisoning start within six hours of the chocolate being eaten, reaching a peak at around twelve hours, and continuing for another 24 to 48 hours. During this time, the chocolate toxins damage the normal functioning of the heart and brain. Despite the best veterinary care, many patients don't survive.
The risk of chocolate to dogs is now widely known, but there are still misunderstandings about it. There is no need to rush a dog to the vet if someone accidentally gives them a small piece of chocolate egg. Instead, if you are unsure, make an estimate of how many grams of chocolate have been eaten, find out the dog's weight, and look at the guideline figures I've given above. If you are still unsure, then just phone the on-duty vet: they will be able to give you the safest advice.
In the past, because a low dose of chocolate for a big dog is harmless, I used to think that there was no harm in giving an occasional crumb of chocolate to a dog. I've changed my mind for a simple reason: by giving small amounts of chocolate to a dog, you teach them to love the taste. And when they have learned to love the taste of chocolate, they will do almost anything to get hold of it.
Nearly all the cases of chocolate poisoning that I have seen have happened when dogs have managed to steal chocolate.
In our own household, I've had two crises, both involving dogs stealing chocolate.
One one occasion, a gift wrapped box of chocolates had been left on the kitchen table. Our terrier, left unattended for ten minutes, negotiated a series of chairs like a makeshift ladder, grabbed the box, unwrapped it and tucked into the chocolates.
On another occasion, we were having an Easter Egg hunt in the garden for the children. One of our dogs sneaked out before the children, and by the time we all went out, she'd managed to find and scoff two of the eggs.
I believe that if the two dogs had never learned to like chocolate in the first place, there's a chance that they might not have been so keen to grab the stash.
In summary, there are three Easter messages for dog owners.
First, no chocolate treats at all for dogs: even though they may not get poisoned, they'll learn to love chocolate, which is a bad idea. Second, lock up all chocolate if dogs are around: nearly all cases of chocolate poisoning happen after dogs steal a stash.
And third, if your dog eats a dangerous amount of chocolate, go straight to the vet: if you delay at all, you're putting your pet's life at risk. Have a happy and safe Easter everyone!