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Dogs that ingest cocoa mulch can suffer toxic reaction

While cocoa bean mulch adds an attractive and water-wise landscaping layer it can be hazardous to pets. If a pet owner catches his or her dog grazing it, they could be faced with a sick animal along with a hefty veterinarian bill.

What separates it from other mulch products are the cocoa shells contained within. Its sweet aroma attracts dogs, and that, can lead to trouble.

“The mulch is actually made from the processed hulls of cocoa beans, and if ingested, has the potential to be toxic in the same way that chocolate can be,” said Julie R. Fischer, DVM, at Veterinary Specialty Hospital of San Diego and North County. “It doesn’t actually have cocoa in it, but the beans and hulls both have toxic potential.”

Fisher, who specializes in small animal internal medicine, has not encountered a cocoa mulch ingestion case. Yet, the threat remains. Homeowners are turning to mulch as one option for water conservation solutions.

Theobromine, the canine toxin found in chocolate, is also a cocoa bean mulch ingredient.

“Theobromine is a central nervous system stimulant, as well as a direct stimulant of the heart muscle, so it increases the heart rate, and can cause abnormal heart rhythms, excitation, tremors, seizures, and at very high doses, death,” she said. “The most common sign we see with cocoa mulch toxicity, though, is gastrointestinal upset, usually indicated by vomiting.”

Generally, a dog will become symptomatic within hours after it consumes the toxin. Cats, it appears, aren’t attracted to cocoa mulch at all.

Like Fischer, John Abella, DVM and practicing partner at Aloha Animal Hospital in Vista, has not come face-to-face with cocoa bean mulch patients.

“Although the ASPCA notes that California accounts for 67 percent of these cases, we have not seen any,” Abella said. “The ASPCA animal poison center has not reported any deaths from cocoa mulch, however, there was one dog thought to have died reported to the ASPCA.”

If a 50-pound dog were to consume two ounces of cocoa mulch, Fischer said, that would be enough for a gastrointestinal upset. Up that amount to five ounces and that same dog could potentially have seizures. Bump it to nine ounces or more and its leaning on the side of fatal.

Every minute counts when reversing toxicity. In theobromine cases, there is no direct antidote, so medical teams are addressing immediate symptoms. “Supportive care is the primary treatment, including activated charcoal, tremor control with intravenous medication, and controlling tachyarrhythmia,” Abella said.

Cocoa bean mulch is one of many types of bark products found on landscaping shelves.

“People like cocoa mulch because it looks nice with its deep, rich brown color,” said Steve Cully, manager of L&M Fertilizer in Fallbrook. “And there’s that pleasant cocoa smell that goes with it.”

But for those in search of a safer pet product, Cully said there’s a host of decorative bark products to choose from. All have the same mulch benefits.

The toxins in a theobromine-based mulch cannot be rinsed off with water. The only way to remove cocoa mulch, Cully said, is to completely replace it.

And that’s really the most effective remedy of all when a dog starts nosing around.

Writer’s Note: For more information on cocoa bean mulch and other garden hazards, please contact your veterinarian or call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435. Also visit for more information.

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