For some folks, the start of a new year is a catalyst to lose weight and this may mean switching from plain old sugar to lower calorie sweeteners. Xylitol is one such sugar substitute that is safe for human consumption, but is toxic for dogs and cats. In fact, it can be deadly.
What exactly is xylitol?
Discovered by German chemist Emil Fisher in 1891, xylitol is found in fruit and vegetable fibers. The xylitol we consume is manufactured by beginning with a product called xylan found in hardwood trees and corncobs.
Xylitol was first put to use as a sweetener in Finland during World War II when sucrose was unavailable. The growth in xylitol popularity is attributed to its many beneficial properties. To begin with, xylitol is as sweet as sucrose, but with far fewer calories. Additionally, compared to sugar, it causes very little insulin release in people and insulin is not required for it to be put to use as an energy source for the body. Lastly, xylitol has been shown to prevent mouth bacteria from producing acids that damage the surfaces of the teeth. For this reason, xylitol is commonly included in toothpastes, sugar-free gum, and other oral care products.
Species-specific effects of xylitol
The effect of xylitol on insulin release varies dramatically between species. In people, rats, horses, and rhesus monkeys, xylitol causes little to no increase in insulin release or change in blood sugar levels. This is altogether different in dogs, cats, cows, goats, rabbits, and baboons. In these species xylitol causes a marked increase in insulin release and drop in blood sugar and is the basis for xylitol toxicity.
Xylitol Toxicity in dogs
After a dog consumes a significant amount of xylitol, there is a massive release of insulin from the pancreas. This, in turn, results in a dangerously low blood sugar level and symptoms such as weakness, trembling, seizures, collapse, and even death.
At higher dosages, xylitol can cause massive liver destruction (known as necrosis) in which large numbers of liver cells die abruptly. This produces an acute health crisis and, in many cases, death.
Vomiting is often the first symptom of xylitol toxicity. Other symptoms related to the low blood sugar level develop within 30 minutes to 12 hours following consumption. When xylitol-induced liver damage occurs, blood liver enzyme values typically begin increasing within 12 to 24 hours.
The dose of xylitol considered to be toxic for dogs is 0.1 gram or more of xylitol per kg of the dog’s body weight.
What about cats and xylitol?
While xylitol ingestion in cats does cause a drop in blood sugar, this rarely happens. This is because, unlike dogs, most kitties have very discriminating palates- they don’t choose to eat products containing xylitol. Keep in mind however, some kitties will not follow this rule and may find xylitol containing products tasty.
Treatment of xylitol toxicity
Emergency treatment is warranted after a dog (or cat) consumes xylitol. If vomiting can be successfully induced within the first 30 minutes or so (before the xylitol leaves the stomach), the problem may be solved. Once xylitol leaves the stomach (the other way) and triggers the pancreas to produce insulin, intensive treatment is warranted in order to try to counteract the effects of hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) and liver damage. Treatment includes hospitalization with round-the-clock care, blood monitoring, and administration of intravenous glucose and liver-protective agents. In some cases, blood transfusions are needed to counteract the effects of blood clotting abnormalities caused by liver failure.
The prognosis for xylitol toxicity varies and depends on how promptly the dog or cat receives treatment as well as the amount of xylitol that was consumed.
Read labels carefully
Many foods and dental products contain xylitol. Some commonly used products that may contain xylitol include:
- Chewing gum
- Peanut butter
- Sugar-free candy
- Sugar free breath mints
- Fruit drinks
- Jellies and jams
- Baked goods
- Sugar-free puddings and Jello
- Over the counter vitamin supplements
Believe it or not, some products advertised specifically for dogs and cats, such as toothpaste, contain small amounts of xylitol! What are these manufacturers thinking?!
Not all product labels clearly state if they contain xylitol. If a label states only, “artificially sweetened,” presume that it contains xylitol. If you opt to use xylitol-containing products in your household, be sure to keep them completely out of your clever companion’s reach.
What to do if your companion eats xylitol
If you believe that your companion has just eaten (as in you just watched it happen) something containing xylitol, contact a veterinary hospital staff member right away.
If you’re not really sure when the xylitol was consumed (you’ve just returned home from work and the remains of sugar-free gum wrappers are decorating the couch), transport your companion to a nearby veterinary clinic or 24-hour emergency hospital right away. Be sure to take the label of the consumed product with you. Time is always of the essence when treating xylitol toxicity.
Look around your house and see if you have any xylitol-containing products. What did you find?
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian — they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your companions.