While chocolate may be a sweet delight for humans to eat, this is one type of food that can be toxic to cats.
Of the calls received by the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory reporting toxic exposure to pets, chocolate and cocoa products tops the list of food items.
Why is chocolate toxic to cats?
Chocolate contains two primary toxic components, theobromine and caffeine. Both substances belong to the methylxanthine family and stimulate the central nervous system.
While humans can metabolize these components reasonably well, cats process them at a much slower pace, leading to toxic accumulation in their bodies.
What can happen to a cat that eats chocolate?
Cats may experience symptoms such as restlessness, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, muscle tremors, and in severe cases, seizures.
Depending on the quantity consumed, chocolate can even lead to life-threatening conditions like cardiac failure or pancreatitis in cats. The level of toxicity depends on the type and amount of chocolate ingested, with dark chocolate and baking chocolate having higher concentrations of theobromine and caffeine.
Never offer any kind of chocolate or foods containing cocoa like chocolate flavored milk, chocolate ice cream, or chocolate frosting to your cat.
Cocoa is in variety of food items
It’s not just the obvious chocolate bars and chocolate deserts that you should be aware of. Other types of food and drink have cocoa added to them so be aware of these food sources and keep them away from your cats:
- Breakfast Cereals: Many breakfast cereals, especially those marketed to children, contain cocoa, contributing to their chocolatey flavor.
- Protein Bars and Health Foods: Many health foods, including protein bars and meal-replacement shakes, may contain cocoa for flavor and its antioxidant properties.
- Mole Sauce: A traditional Mexican sauce, mole often contains cocoa or chocolate as one of its many ingredients.
- Certain Alcoholic Beverages: Certain beers, wines, and liqueurs may contain cocoa. Chocolate stouts and porters, for example, often use cocoa in the brewing process.
- Coffee: Some blends of coffee may have cocoa mixed in for a touch of chocolate flavor.
- Spice Mixes: Certain spice blends, especially those used in baking, can contain cocoa.
- Cake Mixes and Instant Puddings: Prepackaged mixes for cakes, brownies, or puddings may contain cocoa, even those not explicitly chocolate-flavored.
- BBQ Sauces: Some barbecue sauces use cocoa for a unique depth of flavor.
- Supplements: Cocoa is sometimes included in dietary supplements, thanks to its antioxidant properties.
Affects of theobromine and caffeine on cats
Theobromine, a bitter alkaloid found in chocolate and other foods like tea leaves, can have serious health consequences in cats. Like theobromine, caffeine is another compound found in a variety of foods and beverages including coffee, tea, and chocolate. While humans metabolize both compounds fairly quickly, cats metabolize it much more slowly, which allows it to build up to toxic levels in their system.
Theobromine and caffeine both act as stimulants in the body, especially affecting the central nervous system and cardiovascular system. When a cat ingests theobromine and caffeine, the substances can lead to symptoms like restlessness, hyperactivity, increased thirst, excessive urination, and vomiting. More severe symptoms may include an abnormal heart rhythm, muscle tremors, seizures, and, in some cases, it can even lead to death.
Theobromine and caffeine’s toxicity varies based on the type of chocolate (dark chocolate and baking chocolate have higher theobromine levels than milk chocolate), the amount ingested, and the size and health of the cat.
Even small amounts of chocolate can be dangerous for cats due to their inability to metabolize theobromine and caffeine effectively.
Prevention is always best
It’s always best to safeguard your cat against any accidental ingestion of chocolate. Cats are one of the few mammals unable to taste sweetness so they are not naturally attracted to chocolate.
That said, the risk of your cat eating something containing chocolate does exist if they have easy access to human food. For example, some chocolatiers like to mix bacon and chocolate and your cat could consume chocolate trying to get at the meat in the candy bar. Some cats are drawn to eating cake crumbs and could ingest chocolate frosting on a leftover plate of cake.
Make sure any leftovers containing chocolate are not left on tables and other places that your cat can get to. Ensure that chocolate is stored securely out of your cat’s reach. Don’t leave food containing chocolate out on the kitchen counter — store it away inside cupboards and sealed containers that your cat can’t get in to.
If you’re in the habit of sharing food with your feline friend, try to instill healthier habits and stick to cat-approved handouts like moderate amounts of green beans.
What to do if your cat eats chocolate
Immediately call your vet.
Depending on how much chocolate your cat has eaten, your vet may advise you to bring in your cat. You may also be advised to monitor your cat for symptoms, or in some cases, induce vomiting under professional guidance. The sooner the intervention, the better the prognosis of recovery for your cat.
Cortinovis, C., & Caloni, F. (2016). Household food items toxic to dogs and cats. Frontiers in veterinary science, 3, 191521. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2016.00026
Mahdi, A., & Van der Merwe, D. (2013). Dog and cat exposures to hazardous substances reported to the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory: 2009–2012. Journal of Medical Toxicology, 9, 207-211. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13181-013-0289-8