Most dog owners know not to let their dog eat various human foods, such as grapes, chocolate and onions, as these foods are toxic to our canine counterparts. However, have you ever considered that if your dog snaffled a piece of chewing gum it can actually be extremely dangerous?
You’ll find xylitol on the ingredients list of many things labelled with the buzzwords ‘sugar free’ and ‘reduced sugar’. It’s a sugar substitute that can be found in various human foods and products, most predominantly sugar-free chewing gums and sweets.
Although it’s perfectly safe for human consumption, it’s actually poisonous for our four-legged friends, so it’s a good idea to get clued up on this sweet substance in the event that your pooch steals a piece of gum from your handbag. We’re going to delve deeper into what xylitol is, where it’s found and how to spot and treat cases of xylitol poisoning.
Xylitol can be referred to as a sugar alcohol, and it’s naturally present in most plant material, including various fruits and vegetables. For widespread commercial use, xylitol will be extracted from birch trees, appearing as a white powder.
It looks and tastes like sugar, so it’s often found in many ‘sugar-free’ products you’ll find on the supermarket shelves. Although it’s a handy little ingredient for us to consume as it reduces our sugar intake, it’s severely poisonous for our pooches.
If you were already aware of the dangers of xylitol, you’ll probably already know that it’s packed into chewing gum and peanut butter. However, the ingredient is cropping up in more and more surprising places as time goes on.
Examples of where you might find xylitol are things like:
Sugar-free chewing gum
Sweets and mints
This isn’t an exhaustive list, the types of products that now include xylitol are vast, you probably wouldn’t expect it to be in certain deodorants and shaving creams!
Therefore, you really do need to keep an eye out for the sneaky sugar substitute and keep it out of reach of your dog. Little clues to the ingredient being present are buzzwords such as ‘sugar-free’, ‘reduced sugar’, ‘skinny’ and ‘cavity-free'.
Although it’s an ingredient that’s been replacing sugar for several years, its use has increased dramatically in recent times. Too much sugar is known to have a detrimental impact on the teeth, and xylitol doesn’t have that same effect, so it’s becoming increasingly more prominent in our day-to-day lives for its teeth-saving qualities.
It’s still got that lovely, sweet taste, just with half of the calories that real sugar has. It’s also an ingredient that’s low on the glycaemic index, which is a scale that rates carbohydrate-heavy foods on the amount in which they increase a person’s blood sugar levels. Xylitol is much lower on this index than sugar, making it a great sweet substitute for people with issues such as diabetes or on a carb-cutting diet.
It’s strange that xylitol is totally safe for human consumption, but even the tiniest bit can be deadly for our four-legged friends. This is all because the organs within your dog’s body react in a different way to ours when xylitol is ingested.
The pancreas is a key organ for both humans and hounds, it helps to keep our blood sugar levels balanced through the release of a hormone called insulin. Insulin is necessary in telling your body how to utilise and convert blood sugars (glucose) into energy and keeping these blood sugar levels at a happy balance. When too much glucose is in the body, the insulin hormone directs the body to store the excess glucose elsewhere.
When we humans consume xylitol, our body can tell that it’s a sugar substitute, so the pancreas knows not to boost the release of insulin into the body. On the other hand, when a dog ingests xylitol, their pancreas believes it’s actual sugar, so it quickly releases insulin to encourage stable blood sugar levels. However, this causes the real sugar to be removed from the body, thanks to the insulin that was unnecessarily released.
Therefore, blood sugar levels will plummet dangerously low, which is referred to as hypoglycaemia. The effects of this are rapid, and you’ll start to notice symptoms within 10-60 minutes after ingestion. Hypoglycaemia can have fatal consequences if left untreated. Ingestion of xylitol can also have extreme negative impacts on the liver too, resulting in complete liver failure.
It’s difficult to determine just how much xylitol will lead to toxicity. The amount of xylitol included in every product differs, it can even change drastically between chewing gum brands. It’s probably a given too that the smaller the dog, the less xylitol needs to be consumed to be poisonous, just one tiny piece of chewing gum can have drastic effects.
Generally, several reports estimate that as little as 0.1kg per 1kg of dog’s body weight can cause hypoglycaemia and consuming 0.5kg of xylitol per 1kg of dog’s body weight can result in liver failure.
If so, this means that xylitol has the potential to be way more poisonous for our pooches than chocolate is. This is quite shocking seeing as though chocolate is probably the classic human food most dog owners think of as being the most poisonous for dogs. Whatever amount of xylitol you think your dog has consumed, you should go to the vet immediately. Never just wait and see for the symptoms to begin, this could make things so much worse.
Initially, you’ll probably spot the signs of hypoglycaemia if your dog is experiencing xylitol poisoning. Typically, the most frequent clinical presentation of xylitol poisoning appears to be vomiting.
Signs of hypoglycaemia can also include:
Difficulty walking and inability to stand up
Lack of coordination and disorientation
In most cases, you’ll see the signs starting to appear within half an hour of ingestion, but it can be as rapid as 10 minutes or as delayed as 12 hours. Again, if you know that your dog has gobbled up some of your chewing gum, never wait until the 12-hour mark, take them to the vet instantly.
Of course, diagnosis will be much simpler if you can tell your vet that they’ve eaten something containing xylitol, such as chewing gum, peanut butter or even some human toothpaste. With this knowledge, and the quickly developing symptoms of plunging blood sugar levels or liver failure, your vet will be able to make a probable diagnosis pretty quickly.
They’ll also want to get started on treatment immediately due to the rapid ways in which xylitol takes effect. Signs of poisoning will be relatively clear, so your pet is likely to be hospitalised urgently and blood tests may be necessary to identify the levels of toxicity.
Treatment will be fast and intense to hopefully turn around the poisonous impact the xylitol has had on your dog and stop the progression of any serious problems.
The best-case scenario is that you’re aware your dog has ingested xylitol and symptoms have not yet begun. Ideally, in this situation the vet can induce vomiting to eradicate the nasty toxic substance from the body, preventing it from infusing into the bloodstream any further.
If the symptoms of poisoning have already started, the treatment will differ depending on the state your dog is in and what symptoms are occurring. Hospitalisation will be mandatory to monitor and stabilise your dog’s blood sugar levels and provide all the care your dog needs with the help of an intravenous drip. Dogs that develop mild hypoglycaemia will normally have a pretty simple recovery, but if the poisoning has advanced to liver failure, lengthy treatment will be essential.
Evidently, the easiest way to prevent xylitol poisoning is by keeping any products that contain xylitol totally out of reach from your four-legged friend. To do this, you’ll obviously need to try and be as aware as you can of the countless products that contain xylitol to steer clear of any mishaps.
Also, if your dog is a fan of peanut butter, which most of them are, make sure to check the label before you give it to your dog. Similarly, only brush your dog’s teeth with dog-friendly toothpaste.
The oral form of gabapentin, a common medication used for pain relief, contains a tiny amount of xylitol. If your vet prescribes gabapentin for your dog, it’s most likely that they’ll prescribe the tablet form of the drug, which doesn’t contain anything toxic.
The best thing you can do as an owner to avoid any of the nasty consequences of xylitol is to be aware of what xylitol is and what products contain this sneaky substance, so you can avoid it at all costs. A quick glance at the ingredients label on the back of your products will tell you whether or not you need to be careful.
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.