Xylitol and dogs: The dangers that dog owners must know
Let’s talk about a very dangerous and life-threatening toxin for dogs called xylitol. As an integrative veterinarian for nearly 20 years who’s seen a lot, I don’t say that to sensationalize the topic by any means. This is a substance that is more and more available in our households. It’s now widely used as an ingredient in everything from toothpaste to baked goods. And it is very dangerous for dogs.
Xylitol and dogs don’t mix. Our dogs are counting on us to keep them safe.
What is xylitol?
While xylitol has been around since 1891, it’s a fairly new health concern for dogs. Xylitol is a sugar substitute. Discovered by a German chemist, it was used during World War II because sugar was unavailable. As an alternative, they pulled xylitol out of hardwoods like birch trees and used it as a sweetener. The first xylitol gum (and gum is certainly the thing that pops into my head when I think about xylitol poisoning in dogs) was launched in Finland and the United States in 1975. However, now a myriad of products for human consumption include xylitol as an ingredient.
What products include xylitol?
If you walk down the grocery store aisle and read the labels, I think you’ll be stunned at how often you see xylitol on the ingredient list. It’s in everything from toothpaste to mouthwash to pudding to peanut butter.CANINE CAUTION: Xylitol is in everything from toothpaste to mouthwash to pudding to peanut butter. Protect your pet!Click To Tweet
Since peanut butter is a go-to choice for many dog owners as a way of disguising a dog’s pill when medicating a dog or simply giving a dog a special treat, it’s especially important to read the label on your jar of peanut butter. Within the last three years or so, manufacturers have started including xylitol as a sweetener in some peanut butter. The last thing any dog owner wants to do is accidentally hurt their dog when they are trying to keep him or her healthy by unknowingly coating a pill in xylitol-laced peanut butter.
Here is a short list of human consumables that may include xylitol. One of my colleagues, Dr. Jason Nicholas, whom I interviewed on The Buzby Dog Podcast (listen here: Danger Ahead: Preventing Pain, Suffering, and Death in Pets) has one of the most thorough lists of 700+ xylitol-containing products on his website, Preventivevet.com.
Did you know that these products may contain Xylitol?
- Peanut butter
- Chewing gum, candy, mints
- Jellies and jams
- Baked goods
- Puddings and Jel-lo®
- Lip balm
- Pancake syrup
- Ketchup and condiments
- Drink powders
- Medications…and the list goes on and on.
Prescription medicines and pharmaceuticals for your dog.
I want to specifically call out prescription medicines prescribed for your dog but purchased from a human pharmacy. While your veterinarian should be proactive in watching for xylitol, I want you to be informed too. Meloxicam human oral suspension is one example. Metacam is the veterinary comparable drug. That’s the brand name but meloxicam is the human generic and it can come in a suspension or a syrup. It contains xylitol.
Another very common medication prescribed for pain is called gabapentin. The capsules and the tablets don’t contain xylitol, but every liquid solution does except for one brand called Amneal. It does not contain xylitol. It is the only liquid suspension syrup of gabapentin that I know of that does not contain xylitol.
Also, veterinarians may recommend over-the-counter melatonin for your dog for many reasons. Melatonin in the fruit-flavored, rapid-dissolve tablets and the gummy version are likely to contain xylitol. Just a few of these could be toxic. Please be aware.
Why is xylitol toxic to dogs?
Xylitol causes two problems for a dog’s system: hypoglycemia and damage to the liver. Let’s take a look at each one.
Xylitol, a sugar substitute, “tricks” the dog’s body into thinking it has consumed sugar. When the body consumes sugar, the pancreas releases a hormone of plenty called insulin. (For example, after you’ve had a meal, your carbs are broken down into simple sugars or you have ingested simple sugars in your food.) So the body secretes insulin because it thinks, “Oh, I got all this sugar in my bloodstream and I need to counteract that.” It’s this delicate body balance that the brain maintains.
But herein lies the problem. The dog really hasn’t consumed sugar. There’s not a high blood sugar problem that needs to be counteracted. So, because the insulin drives blood sugar into the cells and out of the bloodstream, the dog ends up with hypoglycemia, low blood sugar.
Damage to the liver, which can be very extensive and even fatal, is the second problem. In some cases, the drop in blood sugar happens fast. It can occur within 10 to 15 minutes after ingestion. In other cases, the symptoms may not appear for up to 12 hours after ingestion. On top of this, some xylitol-containing products act as a slow-release toxin. (Think of the way a slow-release prescription drug works over time. Rather than a spike of medication in your bloodstream, the prescription is slowly released.)
Chewing gum containing xylitol is an example of a slow release product. Sitting in the gastrointestinal tract, the gum is acting as a slow release toxin and continually driving the dog’s blood sugar down.
A colleague of mine, who works at an emergency pet hospital, shared with me a story of slow-release xylitol poisoning. She encountered a case at the ER where, unknown to the dog’s owners, the dog had ingested xylitol. The veterinary team just could not manage the blood sugar. The dog had persistent hypoglycemia. They took x-rays but could not find anything.
On a lark, they induced vomiting in the dog. The dog vomited up a wad of chewing gum that had been sitting in the dog’s stomach acting as a slow-release toxin. That was the ticket. After that, they could stabilize the dog and it recovered.
Signs of xylitol poisoning in dogs
Here are some of the most common signs of xylitol poisoning in dogs:
- Vomiting–a common first sign.
- Weakness. Imbalance. Ataxia (drunken sailor walk). Collapse. Seizures or tremors. These symptoms are caused by the drop in blood sugar that may occur within 15 minutes of ingestion.
- From nine to 12 hours (and as long as three days) after ingestion, signs of liver failure may appear. These signs include yellowing of the gums, yellowing of the whites of the eyes, and even yellowing of the skin if it’s extreme. (The medical term for this is “icterus” or commonly called “jaundice.”)
- Blood in stool.
- Complications due to the dog’s difficulty clotting, which may include bleeding internally or externally.
- Neurologic complications due to the liver no longer cleansing the blood of toxins.
What to do if your dog eats a xylitol-containing product
- Call poison control immediately. Have every ounce of information you can. If possible, have the packaging in hand. Describe the key facts. Here’s an example:
- “My dog ingested xylitol. It’s the third ingredient on this package of (brand name) gum. I think he got into nine pieces.”
- You might not know the full story, but the more you can share, the better. Again, time is of the essence.
The ASPCA poison control hotline is run by brilliant, board-certified veterinarian toxicologists. I think every pet owner should the phone number handy. There is a charge via credit card for the consult with the specialist. (If you happen to have microchipped your dog through Home Again and hold a membership, the call is free of charge.)
- Call your veterinarian or your local veterinary emergency hospital ASAP. Once you’ve called the poison control toxicologist, they’re going to outline a treatment plan and your veterinarian or the veterinarian at the emergency can quickly address the symptoms. This typically means putting the dog on IV fluids and IV dextrose, which is sugar to counteract that insulin. The veterinary team will work to keep the blood sugar levels at a rate that’s compatible with life. Not too high. Not too low. They will take frequent blood work. Sadly, treating xylitol poisoning in dogs can cost thousands and thousands of dollars because of the level of treatment that’s required to protect the dog’s liver and save the dog’s life.
Prevention is the best medicine
- Treat products containing xylitol like you would a prescription drug or a harmful substance. Just as you keep prescription drugs locked up in a medicine chest, keep products containing xylitol out of reach of your dog.
- Read the product labels. Educate yourself on what products in your home contain xylitol.
- For more information on xylitol and dogs, please check out my podcast, Xylitol Toxicity in Dogs. Guest speaker Dr. Jessica Taylor recounts the true story of saving Sugar, a goldendoodle, who ingested gum that contained xylitol. You can listen here:
- Also, the FDA warns about the dangers of xylitol and dogs in this article: Paws Off Xylitol: It’s Dangerous for Dogs.
Products containing xylitol and dogs don’t mix. Arm yourself and protect your dog by finding out if you have this poison in your pantry.