Cocoa mulch is toxic to dogs

This one’s no urban myth: the cocoa hulls sold as mulch smell good to dogs (and some cats) and are toxic––even fatal––if ingested. These are the hulls of chocolate beans and contain the same ingredients that are poisonous to dogs in chocolate: theobromine and caffeine. The hulls smell like chocolate; apparently some dogs find this very appealing and snarf it up, while others don’t bother with it, but there’s no way to tell.

Of course dog and cat owners should avoid using this mulch, indoors or out. Those who care about animals, even if they don’t have any, should do the same. But more than that, we must keep an eye on what our pets eat when we take them other places. Animals may not show any symptoms until as late as the next day and then begin with convulsions. By then treatment is too late.


Cocoa hull mulch with a quarter for size comparison. Color fades with age.
Photo: ASPCA’s very informative page on the toxicity of this material.

According to the urban-myth busters at, who verify the internet warnings on this topic, some producers of cocoa hull mulch say that they have put the material through a process which extracts all theobromine and caffeine, but why take a chance at your own house? and as to what someone else has used, there’s no telling. I checked the webpage of one major producer, National Cocoa Shell, and there was no mention whatsoever of toxicity or extra processing to avoid toxicity.

If your pet eats even a small amount of chocolate-scented mulch it would be safer to take him or her to the vet. The ASPCA is quoted, in the snopes article, as to the toxicity of small amounts:

Cocoa beans contain the stimulants caffeine and theobromine. Dogs are highly sensitive to these chemicals, called methylxanthines. In dogs, low doses of methylxanthine can cause mild gastrointestinal upset (vomiting, diarrhea, and/or abdominal pain); higher doses can cause rapid heart rate, muscle tremors, seizures, and death.

Eaten by a 50-pound dog, about 2 ounces of cocoa bean mulch may cause gastrointestinal upset; about 4.5 ounces, increased heart rate; about 5.3 ounces, seizures; and over 9 ounces, death. (In contrast, a 50-pound dog can eat up to about 7.5 ounces of milk chocolate without gastrointestinal upset and up to about a pound of milk chocolate without increased heart rate.)

Note that milk chocolate is less toxic to dogs than dark chocolate, the kind we have all been encouraged to eat in moderation for our own health.

The toxicity of chocolate and cocoa hulls to pets underlines the point that what is healthful for humans may be fatal for our pets.

Another example: NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) pain medications such as aspirin; Tylenol (active ingredient acetaminophen, called “paracetamol” outside of North America); Advil, Motrin, etc. (ibuprofen); Aleve, Anaprox, Miranax, Naprogesic, Naprosyncan, etc. (naproxen) can be deadly to cats and harmful to dogs. They can cause intestinal perforation, internal bleeding, and other life-threatening conditions. They’re not that great for people, either, in long-term use, but we have more resistance than dogs, cats, rabbits, and ferrets.


Photo from

To take aspirin as an example: Children’s aspirin contains 81 mg of salicylate, regular aspirin 325 mg, Pepto-Bismol 300 mg per tablet and 262 mg per 15 ml (1 tbsp.) of liquid. Numerous other products contain aspirin. The toxic doses of salicylate for dogs and cats are very low:

Dogs: 22 mg per pound per day. (A children’s aspirin could be toxic to a tiny dog, or a puppy whose immature digestive system is even more vulnerable)

Cats: 11 mg per pound per day, may see symptoms after one dose.

Don’t take these numbers as permission to calculate safe doses for your pets, if only because other factors affect toxicity, such as age and health of the individual animal. Call your vet and ask. If your vet or vet tech seems vague or not concerned, err on the side of caution for the time being and get a better opinion.

The Drs. Foster and Smith site gives more details on aspirin toxicity:

Signs (in dogs and cats) usually develop within 4-6 hours with an acute overdose. They include depression, lack of appetite, vomiting which may contain blood, abdominal pain, increased respiratory rate, acute kidney failure, weakness, coma, and death.

Chronic lower doses in dogs may lead to stomach ulcers and perforation, toxic liver inflammation, and bone marrow suppression resulting in anemia.

Immediate Action
Induce vomiting and seek veterinary attention.

Favorable, if treatment is started early. Poor, if symptoms are present when treatment begins.

Invest in that ounce of prevention and keep your pets safe.

Keeping deer out of the garden

Deer love tender new leaves and can leap tall fences at a bound. We see them all the time, on our rural property outside the fenced area where the dogs have free range. But we’ve never had one get into our vegetable garden which is bordered on the back by that main fence, and on the other three sides by fences to keep our dogs out. The fences are well under five feet tall, nothing for a deer to jump. Our garden is in raised beds about three feet wide and varying in length; between the wooden sides of the beds, the walkways are about two and a half feet wide. My theory is, that deer (like other hoofed animals) are concerned about having good footing when they jump into a place, and the narrow spaces and mixture of heights doesn’t look safe or inviting.

Outside our fence I have been trying for over eight years to get trees and tall plants established in a bare spot to make a visual barrier between us and our neighbor’s two-story place. Poor soil and hot dry weather have been the major problem, but then the deer have chowed down on most everything that I have kept alive except some weeping willows I started by sticking branches in the ground. I’ve tried old remedies, new remedies, and wacky ideas: Mylar pinwheels, hanging scented soap, rotten egg spray, flapping hanging things tied to the trees, systemic bittering agents put in the soil, glittery hanging things like metallic beads, Mylar streamers, and aluminum pie plates (reputed to work to repel birds eating ripening fruit). Never did try hanging little bags of human hair trimmings, a method with a following. I bought dehydrated coyote urine but then on the drive home thought about how it must have been collected, and went back and returned it with an explanation to the wild bird store, and I believe they stopped carrying it. It might have worked, but the confinement needed to produce it was unacceptable.

I went so far as to lay down landscape cloth around the trees and then on top of that peg down that plastic-netting fencing used for temporary barriers. I put it down horizontally: it did a good job of tripping me up all the time but the deer did not seem to be affected. And soon falling leaves covered it, weeds rooted in the decomposed leaves, and it was buried.

Finally I decided to mimic what worked in the garden and I used wide plastic tape, like crime scene tape or the fiberglass tape used on drywall seams, to divide the tree area into many narrow portions. It worked! I put it at varying heights between 2 – 4 feet, going around a tree trunk or stake and then off at an angle to another point. I’ve now moved to using bright yellow polypropylene rope because the tapes didn’t hold up to uv exposure, and the stronger rope is easier for me to get over or under when working out there. Once the trees get tall enough, it can be removed; without some protection, nothing but the original willows will ever get that tall. It’s not too scenic, but I don’t care, and the neighbors–I think they probably prefer it to the flapping plastic trash bags!