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Xylitol: It's Not So Sweet

Posted September 12, 2017 @ 10:37am | by Alexandra Thell, DVM

Xylitol is a sugarless sweetener. It’s commonly found in chewing gums because of its sweet taste and oral health benefits for humans. While safe for people, this sweetener can pose life-threatening toxicity to our canine friends.

Please note: There’s currently no available literature on potential toxic levels for cats. To be safe, we recommend keeping feline friends away from xylitol products as well. 

What happens when my dog eats xylitol?

1.    Severely low blood sugar (i.e. hypoglycemia)

  • Hypoglycemia can occur within 10-15 minutes of xylitol ingestion.
  • Outward signs typically occur within 60 minutes of ingestion. 
  • Signs include vomiting, weakness, lethargy, wobbly/drunken gait, disorientation, collapse, tremors, and/or seizures. 

With only mildly low blood sugar levels, dogs may also appear to be normal, and they may not show signs until levels become severely low. A blood glucose test is necessary to determine an animal’s blood sugar measurement. The low blood sugar effects of xylitol can last 12-24 hours. Your dog’s chance for a full recovery from xylitol-induced hypoglycemia is good with early and appropriate treatment. 

2.    Liver damage and failure 

  • Xylitol-induced liver damage does not happen immediately. It can occur as early as nine hours post-ingestion but may take up to three days.
  • Outward signs include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, tar-like black feces, yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin, bruising, excessive thirst, and increased urination. 

A blood chemistry test is necessary to evaluate liver enzymes, bilirubin concentration, and other blood values associated with liver function. When liver damage develops, your dog’s survival is uncertain and cannot be guaranteed even with appropriate and aggressive treatment.   

How much xylitol does it take to poison my dog? 

In the past, we have thought that small amounts of xylitol usually just result in low blood sugar and that large amounts are typically what cause liver damage. However, reports have also indicated that sometimes, small amounts can cause liver damage, too. In addition, dogs can develop liver failure even if they do not experience low blood sugar. Many veterinarians are now considering xylitol-induced liver damage to potentially be an idiosyncratic toxicity. In other words, your dog may incur liver damage no matter how much (or how little) xylitol he ate.

To complicate matters, it can be difficult for your family veterinarian to figure out how much xylitol was ingested. Grams of xylitol per piece of gum is not available on product labels or from an online search. This information may only be available to poison control centers. Why does this information matter? It could be the difference between keeping your dog in the hospital for blood sugar monitoring or choosing outpatient care and monitoring your dog at home. Your family vet may need to consult with a veterinary poison control center to figure out how much xylitol your dog ate and to decide if inpatient or outpatient care is best for your dog. 

Prevention

To avoid potentially life-threatening health risks to your dog as well as expensive veterinary bills, keep medications, supplements, and human foods locked up and out of your pet’s reach. We’ve seen our fair share of counter-surfing pooches or even cats that toss things off the counters for the dogs! Also, avoid letting pets dig through purses or backpacks where toxic items may be found. 

The following is a short and non-inclusive list of other products that may contain xylitol:

  • Mints
  • Candy
  • Vitamins and supplements
  • Nicotine gums
  • Toothpaste
  • Foods (i.e. peanut butter, baked goods, etc…)
  • Bags of xylitol sweetener used as a sugar substitute 

If in doubt, don’t offer these products to your pet unless you’ve checked with a veterinarian and read the ingredient label thoroughly. If your dog eats a product that has xylitol in it, contact your family veterinarian, local animal emergency hospital, or ASPCA Poison Control immediately. Hopefully, you will never find yourself in a not-so-sweet xylitol crisis. Please help us spread the word and tell your family and friends about the dangers of xylitol and pets! 

 

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