Death by chocolate and flowers: things dogs shouldn’t eat

This story begins with a walk through the snack aisle of Marden’s, a section of the surplus and salvage store that I try to avoid lest I pick up a 10-pound sack of jelly beans or something equally ridiculous. But there I was, reaching for a bag of Hershey’s dark chocolate hearts. Into the basket it went, along with an Angry Birds dog frisbee.

About $6 poorer, I returned home to play backyard Angry Birds with my dog Oreo.

After eating a few morsels of my newly acquired chocolate (post-dinner, of course), I left the tempting bag on the dining room table and hit the hay early to read. As usual, Oreo joined me.

If you’re a dog owner, you may be able to guess what happened next.

Yes, Oreo ate the chocolate. Sometime during the night, he snuck into the dining room, snatched the bag off the table and had himself a sweet snack. He then crawled back into bed to snuggle with “Mom,” who sleeps like a rock.

The next morning, I found the near-empty bag. A few chocolate hearts were left untouched, for whatever reason. The rest were history, and I knew the culprit.

Oreo, a pit bull mix from Brewer, eyes a piece of dark chocolate candy on the dining room table of his home on Aug. 21, 2013. Chocolate is toxic to dogs. The photo was set up by Oreo’s owner, Aislinn Sarnacki, who placed the chocolate on the top shelf of a cupboard after the photo was taken.

Being relatively new to dog ownership, I was surprised. Oreo couldn’t see the chocolate, so how did he know it was there? It was wrapped, for heaven’s sake. He couldn’t smell it. Could he?

Well, it turns out that yes, he certainly could.

Dogs can identify smells somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than humans, according to the book “Understanding Your Dog for Dummies.” Humans have about 5 million scent receptors, according to the book, while dogs have 100-300 million scent receptors, depending on the breed. Plus, the percentage of the dog’s brain that’s devoted to analyzing smells is 40 times larger than that of a human.

While I wasn’t aware of my dog’s nasal abilities at the time, I did know enough to realize the danger Oreo might be in. I’d heard that chocolate was “bad for dogs,” but I’d also heard plenty of stories about dogs that had eaten chocolate and been perfectly fine. So what were the facts?

Still in my pajamas, I flipped open my laptop and started researching.

I glanced out the window to see Oreo running around the backyard like a tasmanian devil. Was it just me, or was he being more of a spaz than normal?

Google turned up petMD, the largest global source of pet health information in the world today, authored and approved by veterinarians. That sounded legit. Click.

Chocolate is derived from the roasted seeds of Theobroma cacao, which contains certain properties that can be toxic to animals: caffeine and theobromine,” I read. “If ingested, these two ingredients can also lead to various medical complications and may even prove fatal for your dog.”

Another glance out the window. Oreo was standing on the patio table, tail wagging.

OK, time to call the vet.

According to petMD, severity of chocolate poisoning depends on: the weight of the dog, the amount of chocolate the dog ate, and the type of chocolate the dog ate (dark chocolate is more toxic to dogs than milk chocolate).

A young pit bull mix, Oreo is about 50 pounds. He ate about 6 ounces of dark chocolate.

With this information, my veterinarian did some calculations and assured me that Oreo would be OK. He would probably have an upset stomach, and he’d need plenty of water. I should monitor his behavior for a while.

Some symptoms to look for: vomiting, diarrhea, increased body temperature, rapid breathing, increased heart rate and seizures.

If you suspect your dog has ingested chocolate, it’s best to call your veterinarian right away, before any of these scary symptoms begin. Like most health issues, the sooner it’s treated, the better. To read more about chocolate poisoning, visit and search “chocolate poisoning.”

Since that scare, I’ve been looking into what other edibles (or things that Oreo would consider edible) are toxic to dogs.

Oreo, a pit bull mix from Brewer, sniffs bittersweet nightshade, an invasive vine that is toxic to humans and dogs, according to the US Forest Service, on Aug. 21, 2013. Unripe berries are the most toxic part of the plant.

Oreo spends a large percentage of his free and active hours outside, so when I stumbled onto Pet Poison Helpline’s “Top 10 Poisonous Plants to Pets,” I had to read on.

The ominous list: autumn crocus, azalea, cyclamen, kalanchoe, lilies, oleander, dieffenbachia, daffodils, lily of the valley, sago palm, tulips and hyacinths.

Beautiful, delicate flowers.

All of these poisonous plants are fairly common to Maine gardens and homes. And you may think you can teach your dog not to eat plants, but just like a child, they’re going to misbehave. I’d like to meet a dog that doesn’t “get into stuff” from time to time. It seems to me that it’s easier to relocate potentially toxic plants than watch your dog 24/7.

The more I researched, the more toxic plants I uncovered. For example, I learned that bittersweet nightshade — a vine of little purple flowers and red berries that grows along the fence behind my flower garden — is indeed toxic to dogs (and humans), according to the US Forest Service. I guess I’ll be ripping that up. What else can I do? Oreo just likes to get into stuff.

PetMD lists a few additional plants that are “most toxic” to dogs: castor bean, cyclamen, dumbcane, hemlock, English ivy, mistletoe, thorn apple, yew, any mushroom you can’t identify as safe (which goes for humans, too), and mistletoe.

Yes, mistletoe. So dog owners, I know you like smooching just as much as the next person, but you’re going to have to come up with another excuse to fall into someone’s arms this holiday season. And if you resort to buying your sweetheart a nice box of chocolates, you’ll just have to make sure you store it somewhere out of your dog’s reach.

Share your knowledge about things that are toxic to dogs in the comment section below. It’ll help Oreo, and it will help fellow readers!

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at