By Kim Everson, DVM
This week I met an adorable Pit Bull mix puppy whose dining habits were making her owner nervous. “Oh, Minnie just loves to eat decaying fish,” the owner lamented and she went on to list some of the other weird and disgusting items on which her puppy enjoyed chewing. Minnie’s self-selected treats are mostly harmless, but the owner stopped up short when she came to cocoa bean mulch. “And I just heard that cocoa bean mulch is toxic to dogs!” she exclaimed, reminding me that this is a timely blog topic.
With the “winter that wasn’t” officially over, people are tending to their lawns and gardens. Some may consider using cocoa bean mulch as a natural fertilizer. Made from spent cocoa beans used in chocolate production, cocoa bean mulch is organic, deters slugs and snails, and gives a garden an appealing chocolate smell. However, it also may attract dogs,* who can be poisoned by eating too much of the mulch.
Like chocolate, a well known no-no for pets, cocoa beans contain the stimulants caffeine and theobromine. Dogs are highly sensitive to these chemicals, called methylxanthines. Low doses of methylxanthine can cause mild gastrointestinal upset such as vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. Higher doses can cause rapid heart rate, muscle tremors, seizures, and even death.
Cocoa mulch has a higher concentration of toxic chemicals per ounce than milk chocolate. As an example, a 50-pound dog can experience serious side effects from eating more than 5 ounces of mulch. Whether cocoa mulch or chocolate, the severity of toxicity is related to the size of the dog and the amount of mulch eaten. Fortunately, to date, no fatal cases of cocoa mulch toxicity have been reported to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)Animal Poison Control Center.
If you suspect that your dog has eaten cocoa bean mulch, contact your veterinarian right away. Treatment will depend on how much cocoa bean mulch your dog has eaten, when it was eaten, and whether your dog is sick. Recommended care may include placing your dog under veterinary observation, inducing vomiting, and controlling a rapid heartbeat or seizures with medications and supportive care.
*Although dogs are most likely to chomp on cocoa mulch, cats, rabbits and other pets should not be allowed to nibble this particular mulch either.