Halloween is a fun time for kids of all ages, but maybe not for the family pets. The constant doorbell ringing with strangers at the door can be stressful to pets and the door is more likely to be left open for prolonged periods. There are sweets and treats carelessly lying about. As a veterinarian, I see the result of many of these features of the holiday, so hopefully my experiences can help you to navigate the true Halloween horrors!
I have treated many cases of chocolate ingestion in dogs and Halloween is a frequent “hot time” for this. Even small amounts of chocolate can cause vomiting and hyperactivity.
Milk chocolate and white chocolate are the least dangerous, then dark chocolate and then baker's chocolate which contains the highest theobromine levels. It seems that every Halloween as bags and baskets of candy sit on countertops everywhere, I inevitably see a large volume of colorful, chocolate scented vomit. I remember specifically a little Westie I saw that we had to induce vomiting. She had not had the chocolate in her stomach long since her owner caught her "in the act", so when we induced vomiting, she produced melted chocolate with colorful swirls. It smelled of chocolate and peanut butter. It took us a little while for me to feel the same about Reese's cups and M & Ms.
Chocolate contains two different components that are toxic to dogs, theobromine and caffeine. The caffeine itself can cause tremors, tachycardia (increased heart rate), arrhythmias and potentially serious cardiovascular side effects, but theobromine is toxic outright. Serious reactions can occur with ingestion of about 100 to 150 milligrams of theobromine per kilogram of body weight. Even doses not as high as this require medical treatment, since we do not know how severely each individual can react. Thankfully most people notice the missing candy and suspect the guilty canine and are able to call me quickly. I have never lost a patient to chocolate ingestion...yet!
We saw a dog last week for eating 1/3 of a Hershey bar. He was a toy breed, so he required hospitalization and aggressive treatment. His owner was not aware that chocolate was toxic until he started to vomit. Thankfully, she was able to get him in to us and it was milk chocolate so he survived.
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If your dog eats chocolate, please call your vet and let them help you decide how much of an emergency you have. It is absolutely best to see the vet before the chocolate has time to digest and cause toxic effects.
I don’t think that people realize that xylitol (sugar substitute found in many sugar free candies and gum) is very toxic to pets. Cats are not likely to eat sweets because it is thought that they cannot taste sweet flavors, so this more of a dog thing. I have had patients eat the whole pack of sugar free gum and they were in danger. Fortunately, the owners in all my cases discovered the transgression and rushed in, but I have heard of others who were not so lucky. Halloween poses a risk of exposure to more things, sweet and sugar free that are not good for dogs. I think that a good rule of thumb is to keep all things that are not specifically dog labeled out of reach.
The best imperative is never to assume your dog cannot reach something. I have had patients that climbed the backs of chairs to leap to countertops and then pull things off high shelves. They watch us all the time, soundlessly observing. They know that we are eating and they smell that it is something good. They watch where we set it and return to the spot when they are bored or hungry. Never underestimate a motivated canine! And remember…sweets are not quite as sweet when you see them again.
Other Halloween dangers may include glow sticks. Glow sticks are non-toxic, but the liquid tastes very foul and will cause excessive drooling which can be alarming. It is better to keep these also out of reach.
Many pets escape through doorways open for ”trick or treat” guests and are lost in the dark. It is easy for a friendly dog to follow the wrong people down the street on Halloween. It is always a good idea to microchip every pet, even indoor only ones and be SURE that you register the chip with the international database and keep your info current. We always encourage our clients to put us down as their veterinarian so that if they are unreachable, we can keep their pet safe with us while they are located.
I hope my tales of my “little shop of horrors” can help you all have a safe and fun Halloween.