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Is Cocoa Bean Mulch Really Toxic to Dogs?

July 28, 2011 | 12,018 views
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cocoa bean mulch toxic to dogsThere’s an email being distributed far and wide across cyberspace that describes the death of a pet that ate cocoa bean mulch. The story goes that Calypso, a young Lab mix, ate the mulch, vomited, and seemed fine. The following morning, while on a walk with her owner, Calypso had a seizure and died.

This much-forwarded email is apparently just one version of many tales floating around about pets dying from ingesting cocoa bean mulch.

But unlike a lot of urban myths and legends promulgated on the Internet, the threat of cocoa bean mulch poisoning in dogs is very real.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

It's true, cocoa bean mulch used in gardens is highly toxic to dogs – so toxic it can be fatal, in fact.

Cocoa bean mulch can be purchased at most garden centers. It's known for having a fine texture and sweet smell. The smell, sometimes compared to a chocolate Pop Tart, could be what appeals to some dogs.

The mulch is made from the shells of cocoa beans. The shells contain two chemical compounds called methylxanthines that are also found in chocolate: theobromine and caffeine. Both of these stimulant ingredients are toxic to dogs.

Symptoms of cocoa bean mulch ingestion in dogs include:

  • Vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Muscle tremors
  • Seizures
  • Death

According to the ASPCA, the risk to your dog depends on her size, the amount of mulch ingested, and also the level of theobromine in the mulch, which varies widely depending on the brand. Puppies and small-breed dogs seem particularly at risk.

As an example, depending on the amount of theobromine in the mixture, if your 50-pound dog eats 2 ounces of cocoa bean mulch, he'll probably experience GI upset – abdominal pain, vomiting and/or diarrhea. If he eats twice that amount, his heart rate will increase. Add another ounce and a half (5.5 ounces) and he could develop seizures. Ingestion of an amount over 9 ounces can prove fatal.

What to Do If You Suspect Your Dog Has Ingested Cocoa Bean Mulch

Signs of toxicity will usually appear within 6 to 12 hours of ingestion.

Initial symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, restlessness and excessive thirst. Without treatment, symptoms can progress to hyperactivity, excess urination, tremors, seizures, and other major cardiovascular and neurological signs. Death can result from either heart or respiratory failure.

  • If your dog has just eaten the mulch or is caught in the act, attempt to induce vomiting.
  • Call your veterinarian or emergency animal clinic immediately if you suspect your pet has been poisoned. You can also call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 1-888-426-4435.
  • At the vet’s office or emergency animal clinic, your dog will likely receive doses of activated charcoal, IV support, tremor control and cardiac monitoring. Treatment will vary depending on how much mulch was ingested, when it was eaten, and whether your dog is symptomatic. The more information you can provide your pet’s doctor about the amount of mulch eaten and the timing of it, the better.

The good news is most dogs make a complete recovery with appropriate treatment.

Poisoning Prevention

In addition to stimulant toxicity, cocoa bean mulch can also contain pesticides and mycotoxin-producing mold, both of which can create major health problems for your pet and other animals.

I recommend skipping this type of mulch altogether. Even if your dog isn't an indiscriminate eater, neighborhood pets and wildlife can also be harmed by ingesting cocoa bean mulch.

Some manufacturers of the mulch, as well as the stores that sell it, maintain that newer mixtures are either theobromine-free or contain only trace amounts of dangerous chemicals. It's difficult to verify these claims, so my advice is to go with a completely safe mulch like a cedar-based product.

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