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Christmas treats can kill pets

17 December 2013

Christmas treats can kill pets

Chocolate, fruit mince, and sausages – three of the key ingredients to a Kiwi Christmas – are dangerous and potentially fatal for dogs, advises the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA).

This time of the year is synonymous with barbeques and an over-abundance of rich foods. “Being the festive season, we also tend to want to treat our furry friends a little more,” says Dr Cath Watson, president of NZVA’s Companion Animal Society.

“Many of the rich foods that we eat, namely chocolate, fruit mince, and fatty barbeque meats like sausages, don’t just cause upset stomachs in humans. For dogs, they can cause everything from mild reactions such as vomiting and diarrhoea to severe reactions such as abnormal heart rhythms, seizures, tremors, and pancreatitis - a potentially-fatal inflammation of the pancreas.”

The bitter alkaloid ‘theobromine’, found in the cacao plant, is what makes chocolate toxic for dogs.

A standard 200g block of dark chocolate contains around 1400mg of theobromine – potentially enough to kill a small dog of around 7-14kg, and cause tremors and seizures in large dogs above 20kg.

“The cacao beans are ground to produce chocolate liquor which is then made into chocolate. More chocolate liquor in a product means more theobromine, resulting in higher toxicity,” says Dr Watson. “Baking chocolate, therefore is the worst, followed by semisweet and dark chocolate, then milk chocolate. Chocolate flavoured cakes or cookies and white chocolate have the lowest toxicity.”

A toxic dose of theobromine for a dog can be as low as 20mg per kilogram of weight, whereby vomiting and diarrhoea and hyperactivity may result.

“Cardiac signs, including very rapid heart rate, may become present if a dog consumes more than 40mg/kg. Tremors and seizures may occur after consumption of a 60mg/kg dose, and fatalities, or pancreatitis resulting in fatalities, have been seen with a dose of around 100-200mg/kg.”

In severe cases of pancreatitis, it’s actually the fat content of chocolate that is hazardous for dogs, rather than theobromine itself. Because Christmas barbeque meats like sausages are extremely high in fat, these too pose serious heath risks for dogs. To contextualise with a human example, a small dog eating one sausage is equivalent to a person eating 14 sausages – just think about what that would do to your internal organs.

“Don’t allow dogs to eat scraps and ensure they can’t reach the barbeque while any meat is on it,” advises Dr Watson. “Pancreatitis may occur when fatty meat is consumed and a dog’s digestive enzymes are activated in the pancreas, rather than the stomach. This causes severe inflammation of the pancreas which results in vomiting and pain.”

Other serious problems can occur when dogs get into scraps, Dr Watson adds. “These include ingestion of bones, which not only cause gut irritation, but can cause blockages that require surgery to treat.”

Moreover, Christmas cake and mince pies aren’t safe for dogs, either. “Fruit mince contains raisins and grapes, both of which are toxic to dogs,” says Dr Watson. “The mechanism of toxicity is considered unknown, but consumption of these fruits can result in rapid loss of kidney function and anuria (lack of urine production). Because of this, it’s a good idea to keep all sweets out of dogs’ reach.”

If your dog consumes (or you suspect it has consumed) chocolate, Christmas fruit mince, or fatty meats, contact your veterinarian immediately. If your regular clinic is closed for the holidays, details of an alternative clinic will be provided on their answer phone service.


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