Caffeine Toxicity in Pets

caffeine_toxicity_in_petsWe may start the morning with a jolt of caffeine, but our pets don’t need a cup of coffee to get their day going. In fact, they usually wake up tail wagging, ready to go. And if they need a rest later on, they don’t feel the least bit guilty about settling down for a little nap on the couch instead of an afternoon cup of joe. Why shouldn’t they enjoy an afternoon siesta? They don’t have to study for a test, cook dinner, or finish a business report on schedule.

It’s good that our dogs and cats don’t depend on caffeine to get through the day. This particular chemical boost can be toxic for them.

Common (and not-so-common) Sources of Caffeine

Pet owners may not realize that caffeine can be harmful to their pets. They also may not know that many foods and drinks in their cupboards contain caffeine. Most people name coffee as the number one source of caffeine. And they are right. Most households have coffee in the pantry. But tea and soda are full of caffeine, too. And let’s not forget about those energy or sports drinks in the fridge. Other easily common sources of caffeine are diet pills and over the counter products like No Doz. These products can be jam packed with caffeine.

"Pet owners may not realize that caffeine
can be harmful to their pets."

These are commonly recognized stimulants, but did you know that your favorite candy bar also contains caffeine? Chocolate is a source of theobromine, a close relative of caffeine, so even our sweet treats can be harmful to our pets. Coffee flavored ice creams and liqueurs are other yummy sources of caffeine. And chocolate covered coffee beans pack a double threat!  

Symptoms of Caffeine Toxicity

Caffeine is a stimulant. That’s why it helps us stay awake. Most of the symptoms of toxicity are a result of the stimulant effects of caffeine. Think about how you feel after 3 cups of coffee and you’ll get a good idea of what your dog or cat is experiencing after scarfing down a candy bar or lapping up a sports drink.

"Pets that consume caffeine may have
an increased heart rate and
become hyperactive."

Pets that consume caffeine may have an increased heart rate and become hyperactive. They get jittery and restless and don’t want to lie still. They may pace or vocalize excessively. Caffeine-laden people talk a lot and their canine or feline counterparts may bark or meow a lot.

"Caffeine also raises blood pressure
and causes cardiac arrhythmias,
which can be dangerous."

Caffeine also raises blood pressure and causes cardiac arrhythmias, which can be dangerous. Pets may also lose muscle control and have tremors or seizures. Caffeine affects the GI tract and causes vomiting, which can actually be a helpful side effect, since it removes some of the toxin from the body. They may also have diarrhea. Pets may urinate more just like we do after drinking a couple of sodas.

Cats and dog with too much caffeine on board may run a fever and become weak. In severe cases, pets may collapse or drift into a coma. And, unfortunately, some pets die.

Numbers Matter

Dogs and cats are more sensitive to caffeine than we are. While taking a sip of hot coffee or iced tea probably won’t adversely affect most pets, ingestion of one or two diet pills can be fatal for small dogs and cats. Symptoms can start as soon as 30 minutes after ingestion and last for 12 or more miserable hours. To make matters worse, many caffeine containing products also include other ingredients like sugars that can cause inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis is a serious medical condition that can be fatal.

"many caffeine containing products also include
other ingredients like sugars
that can cause inflammation of the pancreas."

The degree of toxicity is determined by the amount of caffeine ingested as well as the size and health status of the pet. A large, young, healthy pup will likely have a better outcome than a small, old dog with kidney problems. But, regardless of age or size, caffeine can damage major organs like the liver, heart, kidneys, lungs, and central nervous system.

"caffeine can damage major organs
like the liver, heart, kidneys, lungs,
and central nervous system."

How much is too much? Symptoms can occur with the consumption of 9 mg/pound of caffeine. Severe illness can occur at 20 mg/pound. Seizures and death are possible after a pet consumes 75- 100 mg/pound. Let’s put that into perspective.

"Symptoms can occur with the consumption
of 9 mg/pound of caffeine"

Instant coffee contains about 60 mg per teaspoon so a 15 pound Sheltie would have to consume 17 teaspoons of dried coffee to get sick. That’s not likely to happen. A cup of espresso contains about 100 mg of caffeine per 2 ounce cup, so the same dog would have to drink 10 cups of espresso to be at risk for death. But dark chocolate contains 390 mg caffeine per oz. That means that the same Sheltie only has to eat 3 or 4 ounces of your candy bar to become violently ill.

These numbers reference severe intoxication and potential death. That curious Sheltie can become ill by drinking much less coffee or eating much less chocolate. And if he hits the chocolate covered coffee beans or laps up a caffeine packed energy drink, his risk of intoxication is much higher.

Treating Caffeine Toxicity

As with all poisoning cases, early intervention is key to successful treatment. Call your veterinarian as soon as you realize your pet has consumed caffeine. Your pet’s doctor may induce vomiting to remove the toxin from the system before it invades the bloodstream, and may also give activated charcoal to absorb any remaining toxin from the stomach.

"As with all poisoning cases,
early intervention is key
to successful treatment"

Supportive therapy with IV fluids will prevent dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea and support kidney function.

Medications may be needed to treat muscle tremors and seizures, lower blood pressure and to stabilize an irregular heartbeat. The bladder may be catheterized to prevent re-absorption of caffeine. For adequate treatment and observation, be prepared to have your pet stay in the hospital a few days.

Curb the Caffeine

Many humans consume too much caffeine. Even so, they are not very likely to be poisoned by their coffee habits. For our pets, it’s hard to determine how much caffeine is “too much”, so the safest option is to keep caffeine away from our cats and dogs altogether.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

© Copyright 2016 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

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