The Scary Truth About Xylitol

How many of you are aware that chocolate is toxic to dogs? Likely, most of you do; but how many of you know that xylitol is even more toxic than chocolate?

Xylitol is a natural substance that is widely used as a sugar substitute. It is manufactured into a white powder with an appearance and taste that is similar to sugar. It has become increasingly popular due to the fact that it has only about two thirds the calories of sugar, making it useful to people on low carb diets and also to diabetics. In the field of human dentistry, research has shown that xylitol helps reduce the formation of plaque, hinders dental cavities, and stimulates the production of saliva. It is found in many products such as sugar free gum, breath mints, baked goods such as cookies and muffins, cough syrup, children’s chewable vitamins, mouthwash, and toothpaste. It is now even being added to certain brands of peanut butter. (How many of you use peanut butter when making homemade dog treats or when giving a medication to your dog?)

Xylitol is certainly safe for use in humans, but what actually happens should your dog ingest something containing this substance?  When your pet eats a product containing xylitol, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in a potent release of insulin from the pancreas. This rapid release of insulin results in a dramatic decrease in blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia). This effect can occur within 10 to 60 minutes after eating xylitol. If left untreated, the hypoglycemia can become life threatening. Even a small amount (as little as two or three sticks of gum for a small dog) can cause low blood sugar, seizures, liver failure, and even death.

So what are the symptoms? Symptoms usually occur within 15 to 30 minutes after ingestion as the toxicity develops quickly. Signs of hypoglycemia may include any or all of the following:

  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty walking or standing (may appear “drunk”)
  • Lethargy
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Coma

In severe cases, a dog may develop seizures or liver failure. Dogs that develop liver failure from xylitol poisoning often show signs of hypoglycemia.

There is no antidote, but fast and aggressive treatment by your veterinarian is essential to reverse any toxic effects and prevent further problems from developing. Treatment and supportive care will be based on the severity of symptoms and blood work results. The good news is that the prognosis is good for dogs that are treated before symptoms develop, or for dogs that develop hypoglycemia that is able to be reversed rapidly. However, if liver failure or a bleeding disorder develops, the outlook is poor. If a dog lapses into a coma, the prognosis is very poor.

It is important to keep items containing xylitol out of the reach of dogs. It is equally important to read product labels! Look for these common packaging labels that may be a signal for a product containing xylitol:

  • Sugar Free
  • Reduced Sugar
  • Aspartame Free
  • No Artificial Sweeteners
  • Low Carb
  • Low Calorie
  • Cavity Fighting
  • Tooth Friendly

It is not recommended that dogs eat human food, but certainly refrain from giving anything to your dog that contains xylitol. Never use human toothpaste when brushing your dog’s teeth. There are a wide variety of pet toothpaste and dental products especially formulated for dogs.

The old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” could not be more true. Share this information with friends and family members and take precautions to keep xylitol consumption from occurring. And with any suspected poisoning, a speedy diagnosis and treatment will be less dangerous and can hopefully save the life of your beloved furry friend.

(Information for this article was taken from the following sources: Jason Nicholas (BVet Med), PetMD, Preventive Vet, Pet Poison Helpline, and VCA Animal Hospitals)