Everyone knows that chocolate is bad for dogs, right? Problem is, most of us think it’s only about the sweet bars of brown stuff and big bags of candy-coated goo. 

Not so much so. In fact, the chocolate most likely to land your dog in the ICU is a baking staple––cocoa powder. This common pantry item, along with the almost-black chunks of the unsweetened stuff, are liable to kill a dog if consumed. 

OK, so you knew that, too. But what if I told you that mulch sold at your favorite big box home store or garden center might kill your dog with chocolate, too? 

Just as surely as drinking a gallon of deep, dark hot chocolate would, “Cocoa Mulch” killed a local Lab mix named Calypso this past weekend. Calypso’s owners had purchased the mulch at their neighborhood Target. Advertised to help keep cats at bay, they must’ve thought it seemed like a good deal. A tragic mistake.

In case you’re wondering, Cocoa Mulch is a by-product of the chocolate industry. Hershey’s markets the husks of spent cocoa beans as mulch, claiming the following with respect to pet safety:

“It is true that studies have shown that 50% of the dogs that eat Cocoa Mulch can suffer physical harm to a variety of degrees (depending on each individual dog). However, 98% of all dogs won't eat it.”

Snopes.com, a popular website whose laurels rest on sniffing out the difference between urban legend and actual fact, had this to say:

"According to tables we've examined, cocoa much contains 300-1,200 mg of theobromine per ounce, making cocoa mulch one of the strongest concentrations of theobromine a pet is likely to encounter in a chocolate product."

Sadly, Snopes called this Cocoa Mulch "rumor" only "partly true," apparently agreeing with Hershey's that few dogs will actually eat this stuff. This, despite the fact that Cocoa Mulch's high theobromine concentration means that if dogs consume it...they may well die. But then, Snopes had only heard of one confirmed case of death by Cocoa Mulch at the time they published this entry.

So you know, this Cocoa Mulch issue has been around since about 2000. The persistent Internet rumors prompted the ASPCA to conduct a study on affected dogs in 2004.

The ASPCA's study revealed:

  • Vomiting in 50% of cases
  • Tremors in 33% of cases where the amount of cocoa mulch ingested was described as "large or significant"
  • Tachycardia (rapid heart rate), hyperactivity or diarrhea in 17% of cases
  • High amounts of cocoa mulch can cause tachycardia, muscle tremors, seizures and even death. At least one dog died after eating a large amount of cocoa bean shell mulch that contained 0.46% theobromine
  • There were no clinical signs of illness in 33% of cases
  • 67% of cases came from dogs in California

The ASPCA ultimately concluded that, "Pet owners should avoid [the] use of cocoa bean mulch in landscaping around dogs with indiscriminate eating habits." (As in, every Labrador retriever I know.)

It's now 2009 and still no warning labels on Hershey's bags of Cocoa Mulch. It's too late for Calypso. Will it be too late for your family?

Thanks to Coleen Smith for bringing us this news. She’s the Referral Coordinator at the Coral Springs Animal Hospital in Coral Springs, Florida.

Now will someone please tell Hershey’s?