Easter Hazards for Dogs

Does your dog get to the Easter egg hunt before your kids do? Easter is a wonderful time involving numerous religious and family celebrations. In many households there is an abundance of chocolate eggs and other various treats along with traditional baked buns and breads. These delicious Easter treats are an integral part of the celebrations in many families but pet owners are often unaware that these treats lurk as an underlying threat to the safety and health of their pet dogs at this time of year.

The foremost concerns centre around your dog ingesting Easter eggs, other chocolate treats, rising bread dough (if cooking home-made Hot Cross Buns or other celebration breads), and the foil wrappings found on many Easter eggs.

Chocolate contain compounds known as methylxanthines, namely theobromine and caffeine. Both of these products are TOXIC to dogs. Dogs should not be given Easter eggs made of chocolate under any circumstances, unless made from pet-friendly chocolate substitutes. Owners need to be aware that many dogs tend to forage and gorge if given the opportunity. All chocolate treats should be stored out of reach of your pets to prevent them "helping themselves" to an Easter treat especially during the Easter egg hunt! Look to give substitute dog treats instead like these dog-safe carob drops and yoghurt drops.

Theobromine and caffeine are readily absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract with clinical signs often developing within 6-12 hours. Methylxanthines can cause hyperactivity, elevated heart rate, tremors and potentially death. Other potential effects of chocolate overdose in dogs include vomiting, diarrhoea, increased thirst, increased urination and lethargy. Death is often due to cardiac arrhythmias, hyperthermia or respiratory failure. The toxicity is dose-related, meaning the effects depend on the amount eaten and the type of chocolate ingested, relative to the size of the dog. Dogs vary in their sensitivity to theobromine and caffeine. Thus, the toxic dose is a guide only as individual variations between dogs and between chocolate products must be considered. Generally, "mild clinical signs may be seen in dogs ingesting 20 mg/kg, cardiotoxic effects may be seen at 40-50 mg/kg, and seizures may occur at doses =60 mg/kg. One ounce of milk chocolate per pound of body weight is a potentially lethal dose in dogs". This converts to approximately 60 grams milk chocolate per kilogram bodyweight.

There is no specific antidote for chocolate toxicity. Treatment is supportive only. Animals exposed to chocolate at potentially toxic doses (see above) or animals showing any signs of chocolate toxicity should be presented to a veterinarian immediately. Diagnosis will be based on the history of exposure to chocolate and the clinical signs seen. Treatment will primarily involve stabilising cardiovascular and neurological signs, combined with removing any remaining toxin from the gastrointestinal tract. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the treatment plan required to best stabilise your pet.

Chocolate should never be given to dogs or left in an area accessible by dogs.

So what about the wrappings? Obviously dogs do not remove the wrappings from Easter eggs/treats before indulging in them. A bolus or fragments of what is often foil wrapping can congregate in the gastrointestinal system and cause a blockage to occur. An inability to pass such a bolus can cause clinical signs such as vomiting, continuous unsuccessful attempts at defaecation with straining and pain, and symptoms associated with damage to the internal lining of the gastrointestinal system from the abrasive nature of these products. Gastrointestinal blockage is a serious medical and often surgical condition which requires prompt veterinary attention.

Different cultures include various bread-based treats in their Easter celebrations. Part of the celebrations can often involve these products being home-made. Thus the opportunity for a pet to ingest rising bread dough (raw and containing yeast) whilst it is set aside to rise is a very real potential hazard as it presents a significant risk to dogs. The stomach's warm environment aids in the replication of the yeast and expansion of the dough. This results in distension of the stomach and can cause life threatening gastric dilation/volvulus to occur. Significant gastric distension compromises respiratory function. Furthermore, yeast fermentation produces ethanol (alcohol) which is absorbed into the bloodstream and causes inebriation and significant metabolic changes. The mechanical and biochemical hazards produced when rising bread dough is ingested by dogs present as serious clinical signs. The dog may have several unproductive attempts at vomiting, show signs of abdominal distension, depression, unsteadiness, seizures or coma.

Prompt veterinary attention is essential. Treatment aims at correcting the metabolic imbalances caused by the ethanol toxicity and correcting any gastric dilation/volvulus with pet medications. Removal of the bolus of dough will also be important. Supportive treatment will continue as long as necessary.

Another potential Easter hazard often overlooked by owners is the need for secure housing for your pet. Often with numerous visitors coming and going for festive celebrations doors may not be secured and animals may escape. This can result in injuries if the animal is hit by a car. All animals should be microchipped for identification purposes and wear an identification tag on an appropriate dog collar to allow for rapid return in the case of escape.

Easter is a wonderful time for celebration in many families. Being aware of a few of the potential major hazards for your pet during this time can help ensure that the celebrations are not marred by a potentially avoidable incident with your pet.