Why is Chocolate Bad for Cats: Understanding Feline Theobromine Poisoning

Stella Noble
Written by Stella Noble

Most cat lovers know that sweets aren’t good for cats, especially chocolates. But few really know exactly why is chocolate bad for cats. It’s not just because obesity and diabetes are really serious health issues for cats, but also because you don’t want your cat to get poisoned.

Yes, there is such a thing as chocolate poisoning in cats. Chocolate contains something called, theobromine, which a cat’s digestive system isn’t able to break down properly. But it’s not to say that you should immediately panic in case your cat had only ingested a very small amount of chocolate.

In this article, we will be looking at the reason why you should not be feeding chocolates to your cat and why you should also be concerned if you find empty wrappers of chocolate candy in the house. But cats do have resistance to theobromine, and we will let you know when you should or shouldn’t be concerned, among other things.

Can Cats Eat Chocolate?

cat licking ice cream with chocolate

This is the million-dollar question and probably the biggest reason why most of you are here. If you have been undecided on this question, the short answer is no, and this is not because your cat will not find the chocolate palatable.

In fact, it is not uncommon to hear cat parents lament that their cats have a habit of seeking out the candy on their own (curious cat, anyone?). However, the reason why chocolates are bad for your cat is because of the content—mainly theobromine and caffeine.

The human digestive system is so advanced that it can take the theobromine content of chocolate and metabolize it as so fast a rate, it doesn’t cause any poisoning. Of course, that would be dependent on the quantity consumed (of which an unnaturally high consumption at once would trigger a negative effect).

However, cats are much smaller animals compared to humans, and as such, have less efficient digestive systems—especially when it comes to this active substance.

The theobromine stays in their body system for too long and starts to cause harm in there. This continued lingering in the body system has been found to have effects not just on the cardiac system but the central nervous system of the cats too.

How Much Chocolate Is Bad for Cats?

kitten and chocolate sweets

The fact that chocolate is considered generally bad for your cat does not mean she cannot have any at all. There is a tolerance level that your cat has for the theobromine content of the chocolate. This will usually be dependent on factors such as the age, breed, and size of the cat.

While this is not meant to be an ultimate guide for you, you can always tell if your 10-pound cat has had too much if they eat:

  • Up to 1.5 tablespoons of dry cocoa powder

  • One square of baking chocolate (unsweetened)

  • 20g, 70 – 85% darkness; 25g, 60-69% darkness; 33g, 45 – 59% darkness of chocolate

  • A slice of chocolate cake

  • Milk chocolate candies, up to 78g

  • 5 tablespoons of chocolate syrup

  • Hershey’s Kisses, up to 23

  • About two packages of the regular M&Ms, etc.

Again, we have included this to serve as a guide, so you don’t have to keep running to the vet when any bar slips from your hand and your cat grabs it. However, there is absolutely no harm in checking with your vet if you are unsure of what amount your cat has eaten.

To be candid, that would be the best practice since chocolate should not even be on the menu for your cat at all.

See Also: How Much Onion is Toxic to Cats

Different Chocolate Types and Their Harmfulness to a Cat

cat drinking tea and eating chocolates

All chocolates might be tasty, but not all of them are born equal. To that end, you should know that different types of chocolate are dangerous to your cat in different dosages. Dark chocolate contains very high levels of the theobromine and will thus be the most dangerous ones for your cat.

From the guide above, you will also notice that there are different concentrations of dark chocolate and tolerance levels your cat could have to them.

Dark chocolate is bested only by unsweetened and baking chocolate. They contain the highest amounts of the active ingredient and will put your cat at even more risk.

The most tolerable type of chocolate is white chocolate, which, although has the caffeine and theobromine too, contains manageable amounts. That does not make them suitable for your cat though. Consumed in enough volumes, the manageable amounts will add up to a lethal dosage.

Diagnosis of Cat Chocolate Poisoning

cat weakness

As we have said earlier, theobromine is the active ingredient in chocolates, which when consumed in excess, can induce a poisoning. The general adverse effects of theobromine on the body are:

  • Increment in the heart rate

  • Decrease in the blood pressure

  • Loss of bodily fluids through diarrhea

  • Stimulation of the nervous system

  • Draining of energy

The aforementioned effects will then lead to symptoms such as those shown below in your cat:

  • diarrhea

  • vomiting

  • fever

  • accelerated heart rate

  • accelerated breathing

  • lethargy

  • seizures

  • coma

  • weakness

  • cardiac failure

  • restlessness

  • nausea

  • hyperactivity

  • tremors and muscle twitching

  • excess urination

  • abnormal thirst

  • excessive panting

The seriousness of the symptoms will be dependent on how much of the theobromine is in the cat’s system at that time. In severe cases, the above symptoms will lead to the death of the cat.

It is advised that you get on a call and on the way to your vet when you start noticing these symptoms. If you know that the cat has eaten some chocolate, knowing the type they took and in what amount will be very helpful to the vet in providing proper care to your cat.

When you start to observe all or some of the symptoms listed above, you should take your cat to the vet. They will start by performing a complete physical exam on the cat which will include a full chemical profile and electrolyte panel. A urinalysis will also be necessary to determine if the cat has consumed lethal doses of caffeine/theobromine.

Since theobromine will usually have an effect on the heart rate too, your vet might opt to perform an ECG on the cat to rule out any abnormal heart behaviors.

Treatment of Cat Chocolate Poisoning

cat vomitting

When your cat has consumed lethal doses of theobromine from chocolate, the next thing to do is seek immediate treatment for her. We don’t recommend applying anything on your own. Try getting to the nearest vet as fast as you possibly can. They will be in the best place to determine the extent of the poisoning and work accordingly.

The first thing the vet will do is induce vomiting in the cat. Due to the slow metabolization of theobromine in the body of cats, it is still possible to recover a lot of the chocolate your cat has taken by making her vomit it.

Even if this does not clear the whole problem right away, it goes a long way to ensure that the cat doesn’t suffer a relapse from the release of more theobromine in the course of their treatment.

For those that are far away from the vet and have their cats already showing signs, you can ask the vet to walk you through the steps of inducing a vomit in the cat before you take her in. Such immediate care will give your cat a better chance of survival before transport. We also have an article on that.

See Also: How to Induce Vomiting in Cats

Another common approach is the application of activated charcoal. Being a natural absorbent, the activated charcoal will attract and nullify the toxins that theobromine has released in your cat’s body. The same charcoal will bind the rest of the theobromine left in the cat’s stomach and prevent its release into her body.

For cats that have already started displaying symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea, it needs no telling that they will have lost a considerable amount of fluids and nutrients.

The vet will work to replenish these by performing intravenous fluid application to boost the fluid, electrolyte, and blood nutrient levels of your cat while also flushing out the rest of the toxins.

Other common practices include the provision of cardiac support for heavily-affected cats to normalize their abnormal heart rate conditions, the application of anti-seizure medications, and the prescription of anti-emetics to slow down nausea and throwing up.

That will only be in the most serious of cases though. There could be a time when the cat might even need to be intubated and monitored for some time.

See Also: How to Treat a Poisoned Cat

The Prevention of Chocolate Poisoning in Cats

treats for cats

The truth is that you can nip this case in the bud before it becomes an issue at all. Here’s how:

  • Inform Friends and Family – Your friends and family might not be aware of the dangers of chocolate to your cat. In their ignorance, they might feel they are offering your cat some treats, while in fact, they are doing something that could lead to the death of your pet. It is thus in your best interests to let everyone know that chocolates are a no-go area when it comes to feline treats

  • Stick to Regular Treats – There is a handful of treats on the market that promise to mimic the flavors of chocolate for your cat. What you might not know is that even though your cat has the taste bud to detect sweetness, it is the least reactive of all buds on their tongue. That kinds of defeats the entire reason why you might be interested in purchasing such treats in the first place. It is thus advisable that you stick to the regular treats that your cat likes and not go out of your way to sweeten things up

  • Storage – Take everything that is chocolate or made of chocolate in the house and store them where your cat can’t reach. This is not only limited to candy bars but also inclusive of beverages, brownies, desserts, drink, etc. Cats are known to be able to access tall cabinets, but they are not known to open locked/properly-sealed ones, neither do they open refrigerators on their own. Store your chocolate-based products in these places

Other Human Foods Toxic to Cats

cat drinking tea

Sadly, chocolates are not the only human foods that have an adverse effect on cats. In fact, there is a slew of them that every cat parent should know about. Some of these are:

  • Alcohol – Alcohol is so lethal to cats that a volume as small as one tablespoon could cause massive problems for their liver and brain.

  • Coffee, Tea, and Energy Drinks – The caffeine content in these beverages will lead to restlessness, increased breathing rate, muscle tremors, and cardiac problems in the cat.

  • Dairy – While it is true that milk is good for cats, be very sure your feline friend is not lactose intolerant before you think about giving them some.

  • Raw meat, eggs, fish – The argument against these being dangerous to cats would have been that cats in the wild eat these things, but your furry buddy is not in the wild. If they eat these, they run the risk of contracting E. coli and salmonella-related diseases, not to mention pancreatic problems in some cases.

  • Onion/Garlic – The consumption of any member of the onion family will cause problems such as anemia and digestive upset for your cat.

See Also: How Much Garlic is Toxic to Cats

Wrap Up

cat and chocolates

Mistakes do happen, but some mistakes can be avoided. Especially when it comes to the health and wellbeing of your pet, you should always be proactive. In case something happens, the last thing you want to do is panic.

Get on the phone with your vet, start preparing the cat for transport, and follow their instructions to the T. We wish you a happy and healthy cat always.

Has your cat accidentally ingested chocolates? What did you do to help them? Did you find our article useful? Share your feedback with us below. Also, check out our article on DIY cat treats for healthier options for your cat than chocolates.

About the author
Stella Noble
Stella Noble

Stella Noble lives in Warren, Michigan with her family and three cats. She is a Certified Cat Trainer and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.