Is Xylitol Dangerous to Dogs?
What Is Xylitol?
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found in small amounts in various plants. For commercial purposes, it is usually extracted from birch wood, though it can be derived from agricultural waste from the processing of cereals such as rice or wheat. To turn it into a usable sweetener, it has to be heavily processed using various chemicals. Its manufacturing generates high quantities of waste product that is causing concern as an environmental pollutant, especially in China where large amounts are produced.
Xylitol was first discovered in the 1890s; however, it was not until the sugar shortages in Britain during World War II that interest developed in its potential as a sugar substitute. One of xylitol's attractions today is that it contains far fewer calories than sugar, partly because only 50% of the xylitol a person consumes is actually absorbed through the gut. As a result, it is becoming increasingly popular as a sweetener in low sugar products and can be found in anything from ice cream to toothpaste.
Xylitol is not considered toxic to humans, even in high levels. However, because it is not digested well by the body, it can have a laxative effect on people, and in the EU, it is not allowed to be added to drinks for this reason.
Why Is Xylitol Dangerous for Dogs?
When a dog consumes xylitol, it is swiftly absorbed into the bloodstream and begins to affect the pancreas causing it to over-produce insulin. Insulin is used by the body to control blood sugar levels, but xylitol causes such a high level of insulin to be produced rapidly by the dog that it results in a dramatic decrease in the animal's blood sugar—known as hypoglycemia.
Hypoglycemia is a serious condition which, if untreated, can result in the death of the dog. Xylitol poisoning can also result in liver failure and other complications.
Alarmingly, it only takes a relatively small amount to produce a fatal reaction in dogs. 100 milligrams of xylitol per kilo of body weight is enough to cause hypoglycemia. This could equate to as little as two pieces of gum in a 20kg (45 lb) dog. Obviously, a smaller dog would suffer severe complications after eating just one piece.
In 2018, seven-year-old Hungarian Vizsla, Ruby, died from xylitol poisoning after stealing two homemade chocolate brownies containing the sweetener. Ruby collapsed 36 hours after consuming the brownies and was rushed to the vets, where she unsuccessfully battled for her life for eight days in intensive care. The Royal Veterinary College, who treated Ruby, confirmed that she died as a result of the toxic effects of Xylitol.
Animal PoisonLine in the UK documents hundreds of canine deaths from xylitol every year, but they estimate the real figure could be in the thousands, as many people simply will not know what has killed their beloved pet.
Worryingly for dog owners, xylitol is appearing in a plethora of products including peanut butter, jam, cakes, sweets, takeaways, chewing gum and ice cream. A discarded blob of gum on the pavement, or allowing a dog to have a lick of ice cream, could be all it takes to begin a fatal reaction.
What Should I Do If My Dog Consumes Xylitol?
If your dog consumes any product containing xylitol, they should be immediately rushed to a vet, preferably with the package information for what they have eaten. The vet may be able to estimate how much xylitol the dog is likely to have consumed and can begin aggressive treatment to save the dog's life—this will include giving sugar supplementation, placing the dog on an IV drip and giving drugs to reduce the potential damage to the liver. There is no antidote for xylitol poisoning; instead, a vet will use supportive care to help the dog while its body processes and expels it.
Symptoms of xylitol poisoning include:
- Inability to walk or stand, or loss of coordination
- Trembling or muscle spasms
Prevention is always better than cure. It is, therefore, advisable to avoid bringing products into your home that contain xylitol unless it is absolutely necessary. If you have a dog that steals food, make sure any products containing it are always put away and never left in easy reach. If you give your dog peanut butter as a training treat or share ice cream with them, read the ingredients to ensure the product is safe.
Xylitol may be listed by its E number in the EU (E967), or it may be simply listed as a sugar alcohol.
If you have any concerns about a product your dog has consumed, there are specialist poison hotlines that can provide help and assistance. In the UK there is Animal PoisonLine (01202 509000), they charge a flat fee of £30 for the call. In the US, there is the Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680); they charge a flat fee of $59.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2019 Sophie Jackson