Caffeine-laced treats may have poisoned dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

caffeine poisoning in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • In late 2018, at least 14 dogs became sick, and one died, after walking a stretch of beach in Rye, New Hampshire
  • Pet owners reportedly found treat-like food items in the area, located between Wallis Road Extension and Wallis Sands State Beaches
  • While initial testing done on the deceased dog and a “pill-pocket” type treat found on the beach turned up no traces of poison, continued testing revealed the presence of caffeine
  • Caffeine can be toxic to dogs; depending on the amount ingested, symptoms may be mild, such as slight restlessness and minimally elevated heart rate, to deadly
  • Caffeine may exist in supplements, including those geared for workouts and weight loss, energy drinks, soda, tea, caffeine tablets, chocolate-covered espresso beans and chocolate

In late 2018, at least 14 dogs became sick, and one died, after walking a stretch of beach in Rye, New Hampshire. Pet owners reportedly found treat-like food items in the area, located between Wallis Road Extension and Wallis Sands State Beaches.

While initial testing done on the deceased dog and a “pill-pocket” type treat found on the beach turned up no traces of poison,1 continued testing revealed the presence of caffeine.2 Police Chief Kevin Walsh warned pet owners to keep control of their dogs during walks and be observant of their actions and behaviors. He told Seacoast Online:3

“The dog owners/guardians reported the dogs appeared to have eaten something and within a short time, became sick. From the 14 reports made to Rye police, the dog owners/guardians showed the animal control officer the same general location where the dogs had eaten something on the beach …

Both the treat/food like item and the deceased dog were brought to the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. All evidence was then sent to a veterinary diagnostic laboratory in Michigan. Lab results of the items submitted for analysis showed that caffeine was detected in both items submitted. The lab results need to be evaluated further to confirm if the caffeine amounts are consistent with each item submitted for testing.”

Caffeine can be toxic to dogs

Most people are aware that chocolate is toxic to dogs. The reason is due to substances known as methylxanthines, which include not only theobromine in chocolate but also caffeine. Both theobromine and caffeine stimulate the central nervous system and heart muscle. They also relax smooth muscles, especially the bronchial muscles, and increase production of urine by the kidneys.

If your dog accidentally laps a sip or two of your coffee in the morning, it’s unlikely to make him sick. However, the consumption of coffee grounds, tea bags or caffeine-containing diet pills (even just one or two) could be deadly in small dogs or cats, according to the Pet Poison Helpline.4

Depending on the amount ingested, symptoms may be mild, such as slight restlessness and minimally elevated heart rate, to deadly. Other symptoms, which may appear within 30 minutes to two hours of exposure, include:5

Mild to severe hyperactivity

Vomiting

Elevated heart rate

High blood pressure

Abnormal heart rhythms

Tremors

Elevated body temperature

Seizures and tremors

Collapse

If you suspect your dog may have consumed something with caffeine, seek emergency veterinary care immediately. Vomiting may be induced and activated charcoal may be given to help with decontamination. Intravenous fluids are also required to help your dog excrete the caffeine, and a urinary catheter may be put in to empty the bladder, as caffeine can be reabsorbed across the bladder wall.6

Depending on your pet’s additional symptoms, emergency veterinarians may also offer sedatives for calming, heart medications to stabilize heart rate and blood pressure and drugs to stop seizures.

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Dogs are more sensitive to caffeine than people

Caffeine can quickly become toxic to dogs because they’re more sensitive to its effects than we are. They’re also much smaller, so when you think about how you feel when you’ve had too much caffeine — jittery, anxious, heart-racing — it’s easy to see how pets could be quickly affected.

Toward this end, it’s important to be aware that caffeine may exist in supplements, including those geared for workouts and weight loss, energy drinks, soda, tea, caffeine tablets, chocolate-covered espresso beans and chocolate.

Over-the-counter stimulant medications, such as Vivarin and Excedrin, also contain caffeine, as do herbal weight loss supplements containing guarana. Take special care to ensure that used or unused coffee grounds, coffee beans, cocoa beans, cocoa bean mulch and tea bags are kept out of reach of your pets.

Was caffeine intentionally used to poison pets?

It remains unclear whether someone set out to intentionally poison dogs walking on the New Hampshire beach by leaving out caffeine-laced treats. However, as noted in the Journal of Medical Toxicology, “in cases of intentional poisoning, caffeine as a cause may not be readily suspected, unless awareness is increased among veterinarians and diagnostic professionals.”7

At least one case report exists of a German shepherd who died after consuming a ground meat patty found in the backyard (which was not provided by his owner). Upon analysis, the meat was found to contain about 1% caffeine.8 “The malicious use of caffeine to lethal effect can be challenging to treat as well as to detect and confirm,” the researchers noted,9 as it’s not something typically on most veterinarians’ radar.

While the intentional poisoning of dogs in this manner is uncommon, it’s important to keep a close eye on your dog while out on walks and try to prevent him from eating anything he may pass along the way. If your dog does eat something suspicious, even if it appears to be food or a treat, keep a close eye on him and seek veterinary care if any symptoms develop.