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Posted on Tue, May 28, 2013 : 6 a.m.

Does cocoa seed mulch pose a danger to pets? Get the facts

By Lorrie Shaw


Flickr photo by pbkwee

If you're like me and love to be out in the garden, you've been in heaven over the past few days! The weather has been divine — and with yesterday's rain, everything that was planted, divided or moved got a good drink.

To finish things off, it makes sense to mulch everything in most cases, right? I find that it helps to keep the weeds down and with moisture retention — the latter is especially important in the dog days of summer when things are at their hottest.

Everyone has their preference when it comes to mulch when it comes to aesthetics, but when it comes to repelling a couple of unwelcome guests (slugs and snails) from the garden, one choice has become king: cocoa seed mulch.

I've used it in the past, and it does add a welcoming touch to my flower beds. It has the inviting, delicious aroma of, yes, you guessed it, chocolate.

Not such a bad thing, right? The smell doesn't last long — maybe a couple of weeks, unfortunately.

Well, there has been a bit of vague controversy where cocoa seed mulch and pets are concerned.

Remember that I noted the yummy chocolate aroma? It could be attractive to dogs, too, and as I've noted in the past, chocolate can be very dangerous to pets. The culprit? Theobromine. Dogs are known to be sensitive to theobromine and caffeine, chemicals that are called methylxanthines.

You see, unprocessed cocoa beans contain approximately 1 percent to 4 percent theobromine and 0.07 percent to 0.36 percent caffeine, but the theobromine content of processed cocoa bean shell mulch reportedly ranges from 0.19 percent to 2.98 percent.

Those who manufacture the product say that current processing technology offers chemical residues that are lower than in previous years.

I've seen quite a few posts online and on social media regarding the safety of this otherwise benign product, and a few years ago veterinary professionals decided to try set the record straight with some facts, using findings from cases that had come through their doors and analyzing the anecdotal data.

One of the cases involves a young dog, Calypso, who reportedly had consumed cocoa seed mulch and showed clinical signs like vomiting on the first day, and then the next day had a seizure and, sadly, died.

Dr. Steve Hansen, director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Poison Control Center, noted, "A big problem from the perspective of a toxicologist and a veterinary clinician is that if you have poisoning from methylxanthines, you get a progression of signs — vomiting, diarrhea, more vomiting, trembling, the heart rate kicks up, then it may progress to seizures if the dose is exceptionally high, with death being uncommon."

Vomiting a few times is consistent with this type of poisoning, but other clinical signs being absent until many hours later is not, as in Calypso's case.

"A necropsy would have likely shown that Calypso had an underlying condition that caused her death," Hansen said.

And in the times since, there has been no data pointing to the product as a cause for death in a canine, but they can experience illness if they consume the mulch; vomiting and loose stools being the primary symptoms. Findings do conclude of course that the higher the amount that's ingested, the likelihood of a wider range of side effects can result — for example, tremors, increased heart rate, and seizures.

As I've said, I've used cocoa seed mulch in the past and had favorable results. The one caveat is that one of our dogs will eat pretty much anything on the ground, so for that reason I don't feel comfortable using the product anymore.

In the end, dogs can become unwell after consuming cocoa seed mulch, and following a good rule of thumb is probably best: if you have a dog who gobbles up things indiscriminately, you will want to avoid using cocoa seed mulch on your property. Better safe than sorry.

Click here for a printable handout on the facts of cocoa seed mulch and pets.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for Connect with her on Google+ and follow her daily adventures as a professional pet sitter or email her directly.



Tue, May 28, 2013 : 7:46 p.m.

Cocoa mulch is toxic to horses. I know a horse owner who tried it in her barn (she felt the aroma would keep the manure smell down.) Long story short. She lost three horses.


Tue, May 28, 2013 : 5:45 p.m.

Since chocolate is bad for dogs, although you have no seen mine since he last had a piece without permission, could be fatal. But I going with the old adage that not all dogs can be allergic to chocolate or cocoa. But I really do not want to find out by using this stuff.

Elaine F. Owsley

Tue, May 28, 2013 : 11:44 a.m.

Lorrie, thanks for setting the record straight and clarifying the problem. I really hate it when mass hysteria and fright messages are passed along as gospel until no one knows that the really story is. How sane!! If you have a dog, play it safe. My corgi/chow is so close to the ground he can snatch up almost anything before I can see it. No cocoa for Teddy!!